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Required viewing for all young people: Tracy Brabin reviews ‘Promising Young Woman’

Required viewing for all young people: Tracy Brabin reviews ‘Promising Young Woman’

Focus Features/SKY

4 min read

A darkly comedic tale of revenge on male sexual violence and victim shaming, Emerald Fennell’s audacious thriller – at once hilarious and disturbing – is delivered with panache

With the website Everyone’s Invited currently documenting a tsunami of sexual assault and harassment cases in schools and colleges across the country, Promising Young Woman should be required viewing for all young people.

A brilliant comic-thriller, it’s a bold feminist and thought-provoking film. Wild, hilarious and disturbing, it deserves every one of its five Oscar nominations.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell – aka the Duchess of Cornwall in The Crown – is unbelievably the first ever British woman to be nominated in the Best Director category for an Oscar.

It’s no surprise Fennell was show runner on series two of Killing Eve, and Promising Young Woman has the same audacious story-telling and stylish panache.

There is also an exceptional performance from Carey Mulligan in the centre of the film.

She plays Cassie, the heartbroken, guilt-ridden best friend of Nina, who dropped out of med school and took her own life after a sexual assault by a gang of frat boys. Propelled by grief, rage and the need for revenge, Mulligan is by turns hilarious, subtle, giddy and raw.

The plot is deliciously simple – Cassie is a woman out for revenge. She feigns black-out drunk in bars to lure men who see her as easy prey. Back at theirs, the test is if they’ll sexually assault her even though she’s unable to give consent. The fun is in their reactions once she is “wide awake”. Self-described “nice guys” who would always insist they’d never use force, shamed into understanding their toxic male entitlement.

Promising Young Woman rightly insists it’s not down to women to stay sober but for men not to rape and kill

Coming only weeks after the death of Sarah Everard, male violence against women is headline news. Many online discussions focused on the fact that Sarah had done all the “right things”. She was wearing trainers so could run from any attacker. Bright clothes, so memorable. She called her boyfriend to let him know she was on her way and, importantly, she was sober. She hadn’t made herself vulnerable by being drunk. That question – are female victims of sexual violence asking for it if they’ve been drinking – is at the heart of this film.

When I was sexually assaulted at university, in the street by a stranger who tried to rape me, it was no small relief that as I talked through my ordeal with the police, I wasn’t dressed up for a night out or drunk. I didn’t have to explain or apologise.

Promising Young Woman rightly insists it’s not down to women to stay sober but for men not to rape and kill.

With conviction cases for rape shockingly low, women know being drunk destroys their chances of getting justice; that the defence lawyer would always use having had even one drink a reason to question consent.

In 2015, when Californian college student Chanel Miller passed out after a party and was sexually assaulted by swimming champion Brock Turner in the street, the fact she’d allowed herself to get so drunk she passed out meant he got away with just three months in prison. Victim shaming is alive and well.

And Fennell doesn’t shy away from reality. The ending is heartbreakingly, authentically grim and while Fennell gives Cassie the last laugh, it’s not enough for us to forget that if this was real life, Cassie’s name would be on the heart-breaking rollcall of that year’s femicide in Parliament on International Women’s Day.

Maybe five Oscar nominations for a film that deals with such a dark and troubling topic with verve and wit gives us a glimmer of hope. I’ll be watching the Oscars with everything crossed. The women are coming!

Tracy Brabin is Labour and Co-operative MP for Batley and Spen


Promising Young Woman: Directed by Emerald Fennell
Broadcaster: Sky Cinema/NOW TV

Best Original Screenplay: Emerald Fennell

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