My mum used to say a cow that moos a lot doesn’t give much milk. It was her own clever way of saying ‘all wind, no trousers’, a summary judgment on people who talk a big game but when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are, all they can supply is copious amounts of disappointment. Well, let’s just say that Promising Young Woman is a cow that moos a lot.
Ever since its auspicious premiere at Sundance, Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut was slowly gaining buzz. It was subtle at first. But over time, as more people got to watch it, the discourse surrounding Promising Young Woman became increasingly intense, toxic and tribal; which come to think of it is par for the course when it comes to Film Twitter darlings. This bullish atmosphere eventually translated into awards appeal and – this may be a hot take – resulted in the Academy kowtowing to the wishes of the online pitchfork mob and gave this film The Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, despite the fact the screenplay is by far the weakest part of this movie and is in itself horrendously atrocious. A part of me wants to parse this fact as an instance of The Academy trying to earn brownie points with the piranhas of Film Twitter, especially after years of faux pas, diversity problems and the like.
But you could honestly imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch this film – the buzziest movie of this past year – only to discover it is nothing more than an infantile pile of self-indulgent schmaltz posing as a culturally defining icon to be talked about for decades to come. In fact, now that some time has passed since the its Oscar victory we can clearly see the discourse has disappeared completely. Anally retentive trolls have moved on to champion other things and nobody seems interested in this alleged anthem of third-wave feminism; which Promising Young Woman simply is not, despite the filmmakers’ best intentions to make it so.
At the risk of coming across vindictive (which I am not), someone should have reminded Emerald Fennell of the rule I am sure she is well aware of – the age-old show-don’t-tell rule of filmmaking. Because for a movie which is supposedly tackling unsettling themes, it only does so by way of having the characters talk about these issues. Non-stop. Ad nauseam. And in my humble opinion, it would have been a better choice to actually show the characters do the things they say they do. As it is, the film seems completely divorced from any form of reality. It is as though it was written by an alien who never interacted with people and their only knowledge of human interactions came from popular culture, which does not work one bit. Everything in this movie is perfectly staged, every line engineered, every situation choreographed. It’s over-written and over-directed which completely removes any organic life from it. This immediately begs a question if this approach is appropriate for the subject matter the filmmaker was desperate to handle. Well, is it?
Short answer: no! It is not appropriate. In fact, Promising Young Woman feels intellectually offensive because it insists on spending inordinate amounts of time preaching to the audience without having the courage to back anything with visuals. I suppose the shorthand of this sentiment would involve telling you that for a revenge thriller there isn’t too much ‘revenging’ going on in here. Alternatively, I could ask you to imagine what Kill Bill would look like if Uma Thurman’s character was only talking about what she did or would do with her samurai sword instead of actually engaging with the viewer and letting them participate in her catharsis.
In all seriousness, I don’t think there’s much that could redeem this film in my eyes apart from Carey Mulligan’s performance. But then again, she is one of the best actresses working today and she’s simply incapable of turning in a bad performance, so I don’t think I was exactly surprised in this regard either. Unfortunately, she is also only human and – her powers notwithstanding – Mulligan’s acting chops and screen presence were not enough to lift the film from the sewers of mediocrity. Promising Young Woman just is what it is – a movie that is just a few inches too far up its own arse to notice its own shortcomings. I completely understand you have to start somewhere and to me it is unmistakeable this is written by a debutante who has yet to learn what’s what.
So, let it be a lesson to all who need to hear this. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have someone to take a critical look at your work, which is especially true for writer-directors. It is also a good idea to get out and talk to people. It is also advised to read your own lines aloud, just to make sure they sound as though real humans would utter them. Or maybe – just maybe – it would be fun to imagine if the character would be better off not speaking at all. Just doing stuff. You know… visually… And of course – most crucially – it is imperative to kill your darlings. And let me tell you, Emerald Fennell has quite a few to take care of because Promising Young Woman is not a beacon of feminism it thinks it is. It is a TEDtalk about it.