Emerald Fennell is everywhere right now. Even those who aren’t familiar with her (immediately memorable) name will likely have encountered something she’s been involved with in recent years – from her recurring role as Nurse Patsy in BBC period drama favourite Call The Midwife, through to taking over as showrunner from Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Killing Eve Season 2, to her recent performance as a pre-Parker Bowles version of Camilla in The Crown Season 3. Now she’s made her feature film debut, writing and directing Promising Young Woman – a timely revenge thriller that has Carey Mulligan’s seemingly-vulnerable Cassie turning the tables on the men who approach her in nightclubs.
Ahead of its January 2020 premiere at Sundance, the first trailer for the film has arrived – watch it here – teasing a sharply-scripted, visually-striking thriller with a barbed comic streak. Empire caught up with one of the busiest multi-hyphenates in the business right now to break down the most intriguing elements and pointed lines from Promising Young Woman’s attention-grabbing debut trailer.
The Avenging Angel
The trailer opens on Carey Mulligan’s Cassie – a woman who appears to be drunk and vulnerable, slumped at the back of a nightclub. “That’s the first shot of her in the movie,” Fennell reveals – adding that her outstretched arms are no coincidence. “The imagery in the movie is sort of Biblical,” she explains. “There are a lot of crucifix positions. Even though she’s vulnerable, there’s a kind of power to that moment I think. That blood-red banquette she’s sitting on, it’s a warning.”
Turning The Tables
Taken back to a stranger’s flat, Cassie reveals she isn’t as intoxicated – and certainly not as helpless – as she may have appeared. Breaking the fourth wall, she asks bluntly: ‘What are you doing?’ It’s a question that feels aimed as much towards the audience as it is at Adam Brody’s character. “That was the beginning of the movie for me in terms of the writing,” says Fennell. “I was so interested in people who aren't evil, and how our culture contributes to all of us making bad calls because it's so normal. In Britain and in America too, part of our seduction culture for men and women is getting hammered. When I look back over a lot of anecdotes that I have, I think 'God, we made a funny story out of something that wasn't that cool’. Is it worth interrogating stuff that we think is normal?”
The Many Faces Of Mulligan
As the trailer gives glimpses of other men coming to Cassie’s supposed rescue, she appears in all sorts of different guises – so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them aren’t actually Mulligan. “She’s such a chameleon,” raves Fennell. “I didn't want people to think, 'Oh well of course people like that would pick up a girl like that.' So sometimes she's dressed like a gorgeous Kardashian, sometimes she's dressed like a cool indie girl.”
It’s not long before the men that Cassie goes home with realise they aren’t in for the night they thought they were. As Fennell points out, it’s a set-up that often tends to go a different way in other movies. “There are a lot of R-rated rom-coms that have a similar pick-up,” she says. “This girl is unbelievably drunk in a nightclub and this lovely guy goes over to see if she's OK, he gives her a ride and she turns out to be kind of pretty and nice.” It’s a dynamic primed to be twisted and subverted. “For me, you notice her character really doesn't say anything. She's just there!” says Fennell. “What Cassie's been doing, it was very important to me that it’s not a trap – she just puts herself in places in a certain way and sees what happens. It's amazing how the men who pick her up justify this.”
Not McLovin’ It
As Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s Neil realises he might be in for a rough night, he describes himself as a ‘nice guy’ – a line that feels especially pointed in the #MeToo era. For Fennell, the toxic culture implicates not just men but women too. “It's totally all of us,” she says. “I'm absolutely guilty of making judgments that are wrong, falling on the wrong side of things. It honestly has been such a wake-up call for everyone, re-evaluating the way that it's kind of worked for so long.” If Cassie is forcing men to consider the real meaning of their actions, it seems Fennell is interested in probing that disparity in perception. “Every woman I know has been sexually assaulted to some degree, often many times, but I don't know any men who are sexual assaulters,” she says. “So, what's that equation? Where's the disconnect? I'm not saying that people are lying. I don't think people often realise. I'm interested in that gap of experience and empathy between men and women.”
Judging by the shots of Cassie’s notebooks, she’s taught lessons to plenty of men already – and it sounds like her confrontations are more psychological than anything. “She gives people an option – see your mistake, or I'll show you your mistake,” Fennell teases, avoiding revealing the exact nature of her heroine’s vengeance. “The ways in which she does that are much more surprising and unusual and frightening. A lot of the time I think people would rather be punched in the face than have to go through something more existential. She takes people down the labyrinth.”
There’s dark humour as Cassie points out to her supposed saviours that they really know nothing about her. It’s a side of the character Fennell thought Mulligan (“one of the best actors of her generation”) was perfect for. “She's unbelievably funny and playful and cool. Because she often plays period roles, I don't think we've seen her be as funny as she is in real life. She brings an intense depth and funniness and wryness to it.” As a self-confessed “crazy fan” of the actor, when Fennell met Mulligan for coffee to discuss the role, she was prepared to give a hard-sell. “I thought it was such a long shot, I expected to be gently turned down,” she recalls. “And literally the first thing Carey said was, 'So, I'm in'. I was like, ‘Oh fuck!’”
The Nice Guys
Among the men who approach Cassie are the likes of Adam Brody, Bo Burnham and Christopher Mintz-Plasse – the sort of people who tend to play trustworthy nice-guys on screen. “I didn't want to cast lots of malevolent goblins,” explains Fennell. “I wanted to cast people that we all want to like. When you hear something about somebody you love, you don't want to believe it. I want to test at every stage our affiliations, our allegiances. It's so much more interesting than, 'Oh, well he's evil and I hope he dies'.”
Slice Of Brie
It’s not just men from her past that Cassie is confronting – she also comes face-to-face with Alison Brie’s Madison. “They were once very close and they haven't seen each other in a while, we can say,” Fennell teases of their relationship. “Alison is hilarious, she's just brilliant – again, somebody you want to be friends with. If Alison Brie told me anything, I'd believe it. I'd trust her.”
The instigating incident in Cassie’s past leads right back to her university days, with Connie Britton playing Dean Elizabeth Walker. “It is absolutely at an institutional level, and it's across class, across gender – obviously it's much, much worse if you are a woman, or a person of colour, or in the trans community,” Fennell says. “I feel very strongly, if there's a message, it's everyone can be forgiven almost anything, but you have to admit, apologise and acknowledge. People hate being made to feel like they're mad, and that they didn't experience it, that they made it up. In a way that's what drives this story, the injustice of it not being admitted.”
The moment in the trailer that feels most akin to Killing Eve’s fashion-forward assassin Villanelle is the final image of Cassie – wearing a dress-up nurse outfit and a colourful wig, presumably doling out yet more vengeance. “If this film is a gentle and loving satire of a traditional female revenge movie, then part of that had to be the moment that all of these movies have – which tends to involve PVC and a wig,” laughs Fennell. “Had to get it in!"
Promising Young Woman comes to UK cinemas in 2020.