Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell tackle rape culture in Promising Young Woman

Laura Harding meets the star and director of the Oscar-nominated, sugar-coated revenge film.

Laura Harding
Monday 12 April 2021 15:00

A young woman in crumpled business attire is drunk and alone in a bar. She is fumbling around looking for her lost phone. A man in a work suit, tie loosened and collar unbuttoned, cracks a few “jokes” with his friends at her expense before going over under the guise of “helping her get home”.

Except he doesn’t help her get home, but instead takes her back to his place, hoping she’s too far gone to resist his advances. It’s a scenario that, in pre-pandemic times, might seem painfully familiar. But in the new film Promising Young Woman she isn’t actually black-out drunk. And when the so-called “nice guy” starts taking her clothes off, she snaps into focus and, in a chilling and stone-cold sober tone, demands to know what he is doing and shames his predatory behaviour.

This is the opening of The Crown actress Emerald Fennell’s accomplished directorial debut, which is nominated for five Oscars “What is so fascinating about this stuff, and so troubling about it, is it was and remains completely commonplace,” 35-year-old Fennell says frankly. “And it was important right from the get-go when writing it that there is nothing in this movie that hasn’t been played for gags in quite recent Hollywood comedy movies, or network comedy TV series, or songs.

“The culture that we grew up in, and that so many people grew up in, made a joke of getting girls drunk and taking them home, girls waking up not knowing who was next to them and going on a walk of shame. This stuff was just normal and so it was very interesting and exciting and also terrible to then start to examine it.”

Carey Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, a former medical student whose life has been derailed by the rape of her best friend, Nina Cassie processes her rage and trauma by feigning black-out inebriation and baiting men (played by classic TV nice guys, such as The OC’s Adam Brody and Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse) into taking advantage of her, before giving them the fright of their lives by revealing it was a trap all along. “It felt like a different lens through which we have seen so many stories before,” says 35-year-old Mulligan, who is nominated for an Oscar for her performance, “and I just thought it was such a unique way of looking at this”.

“The more we talk about things like this, I think there can be somewhat of a fatigue with difficult things, and finding a new way to talk about them, a new way to raise questions, it does bring that to a wider audience than perhaps a different version of this film might have. Not that that is the absolute intent of this film, but it does do that.”

The film merges a picture-perfect Instagram aesthetic of pastel colours, tousled plaits and kitsch neon with Fennell’s knife-sharp social commentary. Asked if she deliberately wanted to use beautiful visuals to lure people into a false sense of security before going in for the kill, Fennell, who is nominated for the best director Oscar but might be best known to audiences for playing Camilla in The Crown, jokes: “That’s how I do all of my murders.”

“It was important that this is a film about appearances being deceiving,” she adds. “Whether it’s the kind of men we like and have crushes on, who end up doing bad things, or whether it’s Cassie dressing like a beautiful candyfloss, it’s important the movie is just as alluring and enticing as all of these things are, and then it’s got a slightly troubling centre maybe.

“But you can only be funny up to a point when it comes to this stuff, because it’s not funny and the stakes are very very high. So I think it’s a delicate balance of making it an incredibly pleasurable movie and one that people enjoy, but also being honest about what we are talking about.”

Fennell does not let anybody off the hook. It’s not just the toxic bros who prey on vulnerable women who come in for scrutiny. She also turns her attention to the societal mechanisms that enable rape culture and the complicity of women. “I think it’s just a completely cultural thing, so it’s looking at what happens when the balance has been tilted for so long, so instinctively, so subconsciously, to believing men,” she says. “Of course there are women who participate in this culture or who back it up, but it’s also important to say that their complicity is often because of their own experiences and their own trauma.

“There is a character in the film, Madison (played by Alison Brie) who is an old friend of Cassie’s and it’s quite clear there is something that has happened in the past and her way of dealing with it was just forgetting about it, laughing it off. There is a woman in a position of power (played by Connie Britton) and the position of power she is in is one in a very, very masculine world and she has often had to check certain things at the door in order to get to where she needed to get to.

“So it’s important to examine it all, but also to be very specific about how different those things are. I think it’s a very different type of complicity when it’s something you’ve had to do just to survive yourself.”

For Mulligan, who is best known for her work in An Education, Shame and The Great Gatsby, the best way to dive into Cassie’s character was to establish who she was before Nina’s assault. “Emerald and I just talked and talked about Nina and about her impact on Cassie’s life, in every part of her life. We just wanted to be clear on who Cassie was before any of this stuff happened and what her relationship was with Nina and what they meant to each other.

“I always felt in her mind she was trying to be loyal, she’s trying to look for that, she has survivor’s guilt, she feels responsibility around it. It always felt to me a story about grief and about love.”

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Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from April 16.