Will Steele’s review published on Letterboxd:
“You might be surprised to hear that gentlemen are sometimes the worst.”
We English have an old expression - to be bold as brass - which alludes to confidence teetering on impudence. Whilst impudence suggests impertinence, thereby a lack of respect, one wonders just how respectful Promising Young Woman truly is or even needs to be. It is a highly charged film in both narrative and nature which pays respect to undermined voices by paying due disrespect to the persisting ills of a violent misogynist culture. Questions of respect, consent, remorse and manipulation are all at play in the moral storm at the heart of Promising Young Woman which is without a doubt bold as brass.
My expectations for this film were astronomical. Born from that first press image revealing Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham dancing in a pharmacy, I knew this would be at least a showcase of truly talented performers. The rumblings of rapturous and stunned reactions from critics only furthered my anticipation. The trailer's bold claim that this was a rare film to 'ignite a conversation' are now justified, yet it felt bold at the time to pre-empt the cultural footprint of a film before its general release. By merit or self-actualisation Promising Young Woman has made an impact more by refocusing than igniting a conversation which has been developing for decades and evolving rapidly since the #MeToo revolution. Before I go on, I must state that I understand my limitations on the lived experiences which Emerald Fennel drew upon to construct this narrative all too familiar to countless women. So whilst I cannot claim to relate to the oppressed, I do acknowledge them and take from this film another bold but basic lesson: speak up, speak out, and stand up for others when you know you should.
To jump back to the beginning, my expectations were high therefore the early scenes of the film were somewhat jarring. Fennell's stylistic choices of a clubbing soundtrack and kitschy graphics border on sheer tackiness; a choice which makes total sense once you remember the very first shot highlights just how tasteless and inelegant clubbing actually is. The effect is sobering and one can't help but think this is a very intentional choice. Fennell's directorial debut is not promising, it delivers. As this moral tale becomes increasingly muddy, Fennell raises the camera to look down not just on our antagonists but our protagonist. The audience is kept on its toes as to who is right and wrong causing us to draw our own conclusions which may only prepare us for further shock and awe. To have the rug pulled from under me multiple times was a welcome and impressive feat.
It would be criminal to not gush over the wonderfully eclectic cast assembled here. It almost goes without saying that Mulligan is beyond brilliant playing against the archetypal femme fatale by embodying cowboy and gangster in one - complete with a straw or Twizzler in place of a toothpick in the corner of her mouth. One can’t help but draw comparisons between Cassie and Villanelle of Killing Eve which Emerald Fennell co-wrote with close friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Albeit lazy to compare the two, it simply suffices to say that both Waller-Bridge and Fennell imbue their leads with equal measures of calculated menace and dark humour. In fact every character in Promising Young Woman compliments the narrative often with just a single scene. Particular highlights were Alison Brie, Alfred Molina, and naturally my beloved Bo Burnham. Also kudos to Fennell for casting Laverne Cox in a role that doesn't feel the need to draw attention to her trans-ness and instead utilises her acting skills to simply compliment the narrative. This is just one of the thousands ways in which this screenplay is boldly refreshing.
Some may call this an emotionally manipulative film and quite rightly so. I believe Promising Young Woman was made to be provocative as evidenced by the topics it touches upon and the conclusions it either draws or leaves for its audience to interpret. The moral universe these characters operate within is a fantasy and therefore their actions draw on both our culture and reach quite brutal conclusions. Vengeance is Fennell's playground but her reckoning is so much wider than the film itself. Any culture permissive of violence is questionable, any culture willing to endorse 'blurred lines' as a valid concept is abhorrent, and any conclusion a film draws is only one artistic statement. Rarely does a film touch on a contemporary issue with such tact and intrigue. Where Promising Young Woman will make its mark is in the minds of the audience, and from that perhaps conversations can be had and behaviours can be changed on the basis of respect reverent not to a film but to basic human decency. Any film this provocative is beyond bold; its transcendent cinema. If that isn't bold as brass then I don't know what is!