Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’ Doesn’t Let Anyone Off The Hook

by Sam Briger

In the dark comedy Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) works at a coffee shop by day, and hunts sexual predators by night. She goes to bars, pretends to be falling down drunk — and then confronts the men who try to take advantage of her.

Cassie is avenging the death of her best friend, who, the movie implies, has died by suicide after being raped at medical school. Writer and director Emerald Fennell says the film was inspired, in part, by the messages other movies send about alcohol and consent.

When I was growing up — and I think still probably it’s the case now — in movies, getting women drunk to sleep with them, filling up their drink more than you’d fill your own, waiting at the end of the night to see who’s drunk at the club, girls waking up not knowing who’s in bed next to them — it was just comedy fodder,” Fennell says. “We live in a culture where this sort of stuff is normalized.”

Fennell got her start in television as an actor, then worked as the showrunner for the second season ofKilling Eve. Promising Young Woman is the first film she’s directed. The movie has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Fennell describes the film as “a kind of fantasy — with wish-fulfillment,” but also as something “much darker and, I hope, more honest than that.”

“I always wanted to make a film, I think, that people would really enjoy and emotionally connect to and find gripping and romantic and all of those things, but [that’s] also not a film that lets anyone off the hook,” she says. “That’s a really interesting position for a filmmaker: to make an audience feel that they’re in familiar territory when they’re not.” 

Interview highlights

On the film’s depictions of sexual assault, especially as it relates to alcohol 

In Britain at the moment, the most incredible thing is happening, which is that women and girls are writing about their experiences [with sexual assault] at schools. Honestly, the volume, the sheer volume of these stories shows just how commonplace this stuff is. There’s nothing in this film that isn’t — and regrettably — incredibly normal and certainly was when I was growing up. And I think for anyone who thinks that these things weren’t horribly common, I think, probably never went to a party or a nightclub, or is kidding themselves.

On the character of Cassie

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM– MARCH 08: Emerald Fennell poses at the Ham Yard Hotel for the 2021 Critics Choice Awards on March 8, 2021 in London England. (Photo by Colomba Giacomini via Getty Images)

This is a film about a woman who is trying to find a way forward in a very grief-stricken and angry way. And part of her journey, part of her means of coping is to present herself as incredibly functioning. Like a lot of addicts, I think, she is somewhat addicted to these nighttime excursions, which make her feel kind of fleetingly better. During the day, she wears a lot of pink. Her hair is always immaculate. Her nails are perfect — kind of whimsical pastels. She’s weaponized her femininity, not just in a kind of aggressive way, but as a defense. Like, she knows that people won’t ask too many questions of her if she hides in plain sight like this. 

On why she wanted Cassie’s act of revenge to be scaring men rather than committing acts of violence

I think part of the film for me was taking a genre that I really love, which is the revenge thriller, and seeing if I could … use that structure, which we’re all so familiar with, but do something unexpected with it — and most importantly, do something that felt feasible to me and female, because I think so often in these kinds of films, and particularly when it pertains to violence, it is not feasible that a woman commits acts of violence against men in the night. It’s not a fair thing to expect. And I think this film is very clear about what happens if you were to try. I really started it by thinking: if I was going to go on a journey like this, what could I do? And if I couldn’t shoot a gun and I’m too unfit to kind of wrestle someone, what could I do to effect some kind of change or to punish people or frighten them? I could do what she does, which is scare them.

Anything that gives you that laugh/gasp, sort of, “No! Oh god. Yes!” Is just always going to be such a fun space to be in.

Emerald Fennell

On whether she sees a similarity between Killing Eve and Promising Young Woman, in terms of how they subvert expectations

I think, certainly, this sense of wickedness is something that it shares. Anything that gives you that laugh/gasp, sort of, “No! Oh god. Yes!” Is just always going to be such a fun space to be in. Absolutely, they’re both twists on genres, but I would say they’re both kind of quite different genres, and I’m always kind of quite careful not to make comparisons, just because I think also we do tend to make comparisons between female-led projects much more, just generally all of us as a kind of society. I do think of them as quite markedly different, but certainly, I think, they do share some sort of sense of macabre wickedness and a subversion of the feminine.

On portraying Camilla Parker Bowles in the latest season of The Crown

I definitely don’t think of her as a villain. I think that increasingly what we’re realizing — and certainly on the show — is that anything that touches the royal family, anything that is part of that is so profoundly strange. It’s not like any other world. It’s not like any other family. The circumstances are just completely extraordinary. So that’s kind of the thing that was always interesting to me about Camilla, was that she’s actually very, very private. The Camilla that I was playing, there’s almost no footage, no photographs of her. … She was head girl of her school. She was incredibly popular. Everyone who’s met her from the research says she’s incredibly funny and kind and good fun, and I was just so interested in what happens to that kind of person when they get sucked into this world and then their biography is written for them by other people. I’m certainly not saying that having affairs is a good thing, but a lot of people do it, and it takes more than one person to do it, too. I went at it, to be honest, very much as a fiction. It’s just an amazingly genius drama.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.