Promising Young Woman, Glasgow Film Festival review: Carey Mulligan is tremendous in this horror-swept romcom

Girl next door, or killer? Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman
Girl next door, or killer? Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Dir: Emerald Fennell. Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Alfred Molina, Chris Lowell. Cert tbc, 113 min.

If the new Invisible Man was a Gaslight for the #MeToo movement, Promising Young Woman, which picked up two Bafta awards for Outstanding British Film and for its screenplay, is its Basic Instinct. The debut feature from the 34-year-old British actress and writer Emerald Fennell – Killing Eve’s showrunner, and lately Camilla on The Crown – is a wild and righteous provocation.

It's a cupcake-coloured yet plungingly dark revenge thriller that works hard to keep its entire audience off-guard, and approximately 49 per cent of them in a constant nervous sweat. Promising Young Woman had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this week in the Surprise Film slot, and it proved an apt choice: I don’t think I’ve been so relentlessly wrong-footed in the cinema in years.

Carey Mulligan, playing against type and then some, stars as Cassie Thomas, a medical student turned listless coffee shop employee who still lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), even though she’s fast approaching 30. When we meet her, she’s seemingly passed out on the banquette in a sleazy nightclub, while three men at the bar take turns to tut and leer.

“They put themselves in danger, girls like that,” sighs one. “Especially with the kind of guys you get in this club.” (Of course, none of them seem to realise they’re talking about themselves – Fennell’s script is pitilessly sharp on male cognitive dissonance.)

The first of the film’s many twists is clear to us from the start: Cassie is in fact completely sober, and is using herself as bait to ensnare self-styled ‘nice guys’ with covertly predatory agendas. As such, things play out as you’d expect, until she’s taken home, poured a kumquat liqueur, and carried to bed by Sleazebag #1, at which point she suddenly sits bolt upright, like Frankenstein on the slab.

Cut to: the following morning’s walk of shame, as Cassie chews a doughnut in the bleary dawn light, with a red stain on her shirt that may or may not be raspberry jam. At home, she retrieves a notebook from under her bed, scribbles down a man’s name, and adds a tally mark to a very long list. Something is being zealously notched here, and it isn’t a bedpost.

We’re drip-fed the specifics of Cassie’s plan over the film’s opening act, but it isn’t spoiling anything to say that she has effectively transformed herself into a living, breathing cautionary tale – perhaps reminiscent of Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 masterpiece Under the Skin, in which Scarlett Johansson’s alien temptress seduced and devoured unwary Glaswegians. Even the snaky strings on Anthony Willis’s score nod towards Mica Levi’s instant-classic soundtrack for Glazer’s film, when they’re not riffing on Britney Spears’ Toxic.

A revenge thriller for the MeToo era: Carey Mulligan  - Focus Features
A revenge thriller for the MeToo era: Carey Mulligan - Focus Features

However futilely, Cassie is pushing back against a culture in which men’s lives are typically held up as the central plot line, and women merely as things that happen to them, or which they happen to. The film’s title is almost certainly an ironic reference to the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer who in 2016 was sentenced to just six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, after his “promising” athletic career was repeatedly referenced in his trial.

Yet Fennell gets her not-all-men caveat in quick with the early appearance of Ryan (Bo Burnham), a coffee shop patron who is a genuinely nice guy, and who woos Cassie in the tried-and-true disarming beta heartthrob style. When Paris Hilton’s Stars are Blind pipes out from the speakers in a chemist, for instance, he breaks into an unabashed dad-dance.

Film newsletter REFERRAL (article)
Film newsletter REFERRAL (article)

This is all legitimately adorable, but also wildly unsettling in a film that pinballs between suspense, romantic comedy and all-out horror, and keeps you doubting which of the three you’re watching at any given moment. As a first-time viewing experience, it reminded me of Takashi Miike’s supremely unnerving 1999 horror-thriller Audition: I kept struggling to get on board with where it was going, before realising it was actually going somewhere completely different.

Mulligan, who’s tremendous, is pivotal in such sleights-of-plot, using her natural ‘who, me?’ delicacy and sweetness as a glitter-studded sheath for a concealed blade. (Cassie’s wardrobe must be among the fluffiest in thriller history.) And while the film’s odd, boomeranging structure means the tension tends to ebb and flow rather than build, the climax is horribly gripping and totally uncompromising, in a way that forces the audience to search their consciences just as some key characters reluctantly rack theirs. Grey areas have never looked so dazzlingly and queasily neon-bright.

Promising Young Woman is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17 April