Once a week, Cassie goes out on the town and always finds herself taken home by a man ready to take advantage of her supposedly drunken state. Yet these predators have a surprise waiting for them…
This movie has lots of issues. But we’ll get to them.
Firstly, as I write this, a staggering 97% of women will have suffered sexual harassment of some kind. A further 20% will have been sexually assaulted (which leads to the shameful statistic that a woman is murdered every three days), and all of them will suffer some form of PTSD.
If you are close to someone who has gone through this ordeal, then be as supportive as you can. Charities and organisations such as Women’s Aid, Victim Support, The Survivors Trust and the NHS offer counselling, which is free for all ages.
I say this because if you’re going to learn anything about sexual assault from Promising Young Woman, it will only be in a review of Promising Young Woman. No interrogation of entrenched gender roles takes place, no solutions are afforded. Unlike Kitty Green’s vastly superior The Assistant, there is no slow, cutting observation of the mounting horrors of everyday enabling. If you somehow need a film to tell you that, yep, rape is bad, then here it is. For everyone living on planet Earth, sexual assault isn’t an issue that can be used to springboard careers by attempting to craft a piece of work for whom “subversion” means using an orchestral reworking of – get ready for the subtle commentary – Toxic by Britney.
Carey Mulligan’s performance is probably peak Carey Mulligan, in that (just like her other roles) you will have read she’s excellent but will find yourself completely underwhelmed. In a film full of two-dimensional characters who eventually arc round to one-dimensional, hers is the one who suffers most by having a lack of nuance. Variety’s unfairly derided review made the suggestion that producer Margot Robbie’s ability to sharpen a manic edge on her characters would have made a better avenging angel, yet perhaps the real casting switcheroo could have been made right in front of the camera. As Cassie’s former college friend Madison, Alison Brie brings a sense of fragility shielded by middle-class stoicism that enlivens her brief time in the film in a manner that makes you wish she was the protagonist. The film needs that sense of stubborn righteousness in its lead that simply just isn’t there to generate the necessary dramatic dissonance between morality and deeds. One thinks of Sondra Locke as the traumatised vigilante in the thematically-aligned Sudden Impact (a woman whose entire sense of self tragically hinges on revenge for a wrong that can never be righted) and feels short-changed by the supposedly revolutionary anti-heroine Mulligan and Fennell barely conjure up here.
A clue to its hollow-ness can be found in the script pages that can be viewed online. The opening shot of the film – a basically assembled slow motion montage of gyrating dadbods meant to act as an inversion of the male gaze – is described within the script itself as being a comment on tropes. It is this crude “look-at-me” obviousness that stops the film from ever fulfilling the promise of its premise. Here, the premise is all it offers, its topicality its USP. Using the lens of generic media (including one character’s introduction in a classic romcom meet-cute, and the weird Murder-She-Wrote-ending) to explore a horrific real-life problem smacks of what could be called misplaced sincerity, if it wasn’t just outright cynical. Scenes that could land hard – such as those featuring Alfred Molina’s guilt-addled defence lawyer, or Mulligan confronting Connie Britton’s university dean over her history of looking the other way – are in theory intriguing set-ups. Alas, they devolve into characters merely repeating bullet points from op eds. Other films covered similar ground, but did it without a hollow archness that nullifies any attempt at emotional nuance.
In today’s world of digital plenitude, a subject such as sexual assault is covered from a myriad of angles, and so any work has to offer a different perspective to stand out. Promising Young Woman is a film so besotted with the concept of what it wants to say, it forgets to say it.