This last year film director Emerald Fennell made headlines for being one of three women nominated for Best Director at the 2021 Golden Globes, an award only five women have ever been nominated for in the history of the Awards (Emerald Fennell would go on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film) . While she did not win, Fennell’s film, Promising Young Woman, garnered a lot of attention in the media for its tactful approach to the difficult subject of sexual assault.
The film follows Cassie Thomas, a young woman whose background is slowly revealed to the audience in the course of the movie. The trailer and the first few scenes might lead you to believe that Cassie is merely a woman tricking sexual predators into attempting to assault her while she pretends to be intoxicated, but her character is much more complex than that. As we learn through the duration of the film, Cassie herself has a complicated history with sexual assault, specifically on university campuses, and this dictates many of her actions.
What makes Fennell’s depiction of sexual assault in Promising Young Woman so significant is how she captures the nuance which surrounds being a victim and survivor in the characterization of her lead, portrayed by Carrie Mulligan. Fennell does a great job of giving depth to Cassie’s character, providing an ambiguous heroine who the audience is not always sure they support. This is intentional in both Fennell’s directing and Mulligan’s performance.
For example, one scene that is easily lost among the intense action that occurs in the film, yet is very illuminating in terms of Cassie’s characterization, follows a particularly trauma-inducing meeting between Cassie and the Dean of her former medical school. The scene begins with Cassie seemingly passed out at the wheel, stopped in the center of an intersection. She wakes up to a man yelling at her from a truck, shouting obscenities. Without changing her facial expression, she gets out of the car, grabs what looks like a golf club from the backseat, and begins smashing up the man’s truck. The man then drives away and we are left with an image of Cassie standing in the middle of the street with the golf club at her side, surrounded by broken glass. Her facial expression is distant, with her mouth left open, as if she is in disbelief of what just occurred. This moment shows the extent to which trauma caused by sexual assault can affect a person’s mental health and behaviour. Cassie could easily be perceived at a surface level as an unstable woman who lashed out violently against this man, or a viewer could look deeper and see her actions as a response to trauma.
Promising Young Woman captures the “grey areas” and nuanced territory often said to accompany incidents of sexual assault, putting them right back on the audience. The choice to portray Cassie Thomas at this deeper level gives the audience the opportunity to choose for themselves how they wish to interpret her character. Fennell provides a female lead whose actions are not always excused, but they don’t necessarily need to be. Cassie’s life has been completely altered by the trauma of sexual assault. Because of the experiences which she went through in medical school, she will never be the same person again or have the same dreams and ambitions. This is what sexual assault does to a person, something Fennell captures with stunning grace and nuance.