There has been a growing amount of criticism of Hitchcock over the last eight years or so. People have known what he was like for decades and his poor treatment of female actors, Tippi Hedren in particular, has never really been a secret. As the indulgent tolerance of these kinds of things has fallen away though, as other current film makers have fallen from grace for relatable behaviours and with his genius no longer eclipsing everything he did, he is remembered for what he truly was, for good and for bad. For all the articles, chapters, documentaries and discussions that have contributed to this though, nothing has highlighted his shortcomings as much as Emerald Fennell’s new movie. It seems that what we have here is a very clear example of what he could have achieved if he was some of the things he was not; if he was not working in the 40s, 50s and 60s, if he was not an egotist, if he was not a neurotic misogynist and if he were not a man.
Whether Fennell is taking on Hitchcock or not, and based on this she could, she is clearly playing with an excellent knowledge of cinematic history and convention, both mid and late twentieth century. She is conscious of the genre Promising Young Woman is a part of, even obliquely referencing a particular 90s movie at one point, and as such calls it out for its past offences. The story may be gunning for certain types of men and male conduct in real life but it also has its sights on the whole of this artistic medium that the guys have too long dominated.
Like many of Hitchcock’s films, Promising Young Woman has a blonde right at the centre of it. Actually this is different to Hitchcock whose female characters were alway just off centre, even in Psycho which initially looks like it’s going another way. Hitchcock’s women, for all their intelligence and agency, were there to be looked at just like almost all young female characters on screen ever. Here though hero Cassie takes Laura Mulvey’s voyeurism and grabs hold of it, gazing right back until it stands down. (For more on Mulvey read here.)
Of course there are worse crimes than just looking (which incidentally is a defence this film also destroys). This is a film about the vile mistreatment of women and the damage it does, both directly and indirectly, to those involved. It doesn’t matter if you see the film as a sharp critique of told stories or real ones because it is magnificently both.
I am deliberately not giving any details of the narrative because you can read that elsewhere and because you should try not to if you can avoid it. So much of an appreciation of this movie is in letting it unfold before you, then get refolded, then scrunched up into a ball, ironed out, made into a paper plane with a perfect point before finally being thrown right at a target which it hits perfectly. I will talk about its amazing characterisation though. People around her may be a little underdeveloped but protagonist Cassie is the glorious product of superb writing, direction and acting. Carey Mulligan, who is always great, has never been better and her performance is captivating. Cassie is a complex and layered person who is clearly damaged but takes that damage and reconstructs it as a righteous weapon, no matter the further cost to herself. As an audience you don’t always want to go where she takes you but you are with her the whole time. Mulligan’s casting has been the point of some discussion that to my mind has won the film some other victories (if you’ve missed this, google Denis Harvey Promising Young Woman and see what you find) but I can’t imagine anyone being better. I think the suggested alternative Margot Robbie is a great actor too but this is definitely Mulligan’s film.
Except it isn’t, not entirely. The real star here, as I suggested at the start, is director and writer Emerald Fennell. Fennell has written for TV, most notably on Killing Eve having the hard job of following Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but this is her first film and it is an astonishing debut. Hers is evidently a powerful, but never shouty voice and the confidence, courage and assurance of this film is quite brilliant. I am thrilled that so many people are listening to and hearing what she is saying with Promising Young Woman getting strong audiences and shiny awards.
So Promising Young Woman would make a brilliant double bill with any number of past movies including Vertigo, Marnie, I Spit on Your Grave, Very Bad Things, The Last Seduction, To Die For and Gone Girl to name a few. Whether you watch it with anything else though or on its own, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that you watch it. Its message is an essential one and the delivery commanding and clear.
The Ripley Factor;
In some respects I feel like this is the film my blog has been waiting for. I almost wish I could start again in five years time when this has achieved proper classic status just so I can name the website after it. For years I have been looking at representations of women in cinema and I have been celebrating feminist movies and characters and Promising Young Woman has given me, and all those that share my interests and passions, exactly what I/we have been dreaming of. It almost goes without saying that this movie has a strong female lead who is never objectified (just you dare) and is complex and relatable. The movie also comes from a new female film maker who has created a wonderful piece of work that challenges gender issues as well as being savvy and intelligent while smartly playing with established notions of cinema. I said it at the start and I’ll say it now (while acknowledging that measuring women against men is a problem in itself but Hollywood history has set it up that way) Fennell is quietly challenging Hitchcock and, even with the man being a sexist beast, that is a high accolade that I do not bestow lightly. Time will tell if this fair but I can’t wait to see what she does next.