Emerald Fennell Reimagines the Revenge Fantasy With ‘Promising Young Woman’

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Photo Source: Focus Features

Towards the end of “Promising Young Woman,” Emerald Fennell’s startling new film about a woman seeking justice for a horrific rape, a man claims that to be accused of assault “is every guy’s worst nightmare.” To this, Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan in her best performance since “An Education,” responds with a dead-eyed conviction that makes your veins run icy: “Do you know what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”  

It’s a sort of warped homage to the well-known Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them,” which was exactly Fennell’s intent. “I wanted to make something that felt like a subversion of the revenge movie genre,” says Fennell, who is also an actor most recently portraying Camilla Parker Bowles on “The Crown.” “I just wanted to take all those traits and use them in a fun way; if people are used to particular beats, then sort of twisting those expectations. I wanted to make something that looked almost like an allegory.”

After its February premiere was pushed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the dark comedy (and it is a comedy, though a truly pitch-black one) will at last debut in select theaters Dec. 25 with an on-demand release after the new year. Following Cassie, whom Fennell calls a sort of “avenging angel,” on her quest to offer wrong-doers a choice between forgiveness and punishment, the plot called for a number of high-voltage cameos from the likes of Alison Brie, Adam Brody, Connie Britton, and Laverne Cox

All Cassie wants from any of them is “acknowledgment that it happened, that it’s real,” Fennell says. But, as survivors of assault and those who bear witness can attest, that frequently never comes.

“I was determined to make every single conversation in this movie a conversation that millions of people have all the time,” she explains. “It needed to feel like life can sometimes feel when you’re dealing with these sorts of things, which is grotesque and hideous and awful. It was really saying to all of the actors, ‘You absolutely think you’re a good person, you identify as a good person.’ 

“To pretend that the only people who engage in this behavior and allow it to happen are batty,” she adds, “it’s just not true.” 

Also built into her directorial approach on-set was constantly reminding the actors that these behaviors we understand today to be horrific—a drunk girl being taken advantage of at a party, for example—were fodder for mainstream comedy in blockbuster movies and network television just 10 or 15 years ago. During that time, Fennell says, her film may not have gotten made. 

READ: 3 Powerful Resources for Actors
in the Age of #MeToo

As is, in the eras of TimesUp and #MeToo, she had reservations about pitching a feature-length film that deals explicitly with an assault. And those doubts were often founded. “When I did pitch it to people, you could see the ones who were like, ‘Oh fuck. This makes me feel really weird.’ And then there were of course the people who were like, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” she recalls. “Some people knocked the script and others were sort of shaken by it, I think. Because, yeah, it’s difficult.”  

Of course, in anticipating the response a movie like this is bound to elicit, Fennell acknowledges the pink elephant in the room. “I think it’s also something about being a female filmmaker. Male filmmakers make movies all the time where things are much, much more harrowing and violent than the film I’ve made,” she says. “I suppose there will be strong reactions because it’s strongly felt, and often being very honest about this stuff can be quite frightening.”

Male audience members can relax, though: It will still be less frightening than the prospect of a woman laughing at you. 

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