Review: Oscar-nominated writer-director Emerald Fennell sharpens her claws with a provocative thriller that draws blood from the efforts of an avenging angel (Carey Mulligan) to dole out the justice denied to her best friend in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Promising Young Woman strikes a sickening chord, especially when refracted through the prism of recent events, culminating in arguably the most harrowing scene of the year at a boozy bachelor party unscored by a deliciously discordant orchestral arrangement of Britney Spears’ Toxic.
Mulligan issues the central character’s ferocious, primal screams with unwavering commitment. She performs one stunt that we watch while cresting waves of nausea and slack-jawed despair. The film’s twisted sense of humour is as dark as the war-paint mascara that she etches around her bloodshot eyes to complement deliberately smeared lipstick and affect the dishevelled disposition of a drunk woman unable to protect herself from lascivious predators who believe she is “just asking for it”. Tally scores and men’s names, scrawled in red biro in a notebook, intimate a dark and intriguing facet, which writer-director Fennell chooses to keep off screen.
By omitting one side of a complex story, it is easier to pull off her jaw-dropping coup de grace. However, the imbalance is a persistent niggle. Like the ferociously intelligent and driven central character, who drops out of medical school when her life implodes, Promising Young Woman exercises restraint and holds itself back when I wish it would daringly and courageously go for broke.
Cassie Thomas (Mulligan) abandons dreams of studying medicine at Forrest University when her best friend Nina is raped by classmate Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) and the dean (Connie Britton) chooses to believe his version of events. Now 30 years old and still living at home with her parents (Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge), Cassie is haunted by the past, unable to forgive herself for not being at the party to protect Nina. A chance encounter with university classmate Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), now a paediatric doctor, rubs fresh salt into unhealed wounds and sets Cassie on a collision course with Al’s conspirators including his troubled lawyer (Alfred Molina).
Promising Young Woman chooses its polished words with care, burning off extraneous dramatic fat to retain a scorching laser-like focus on Cassie as she boards her runaway train fuelled by guilt. Mulligan is utterly fearless, expertly removing the various masks that Cassie wears to protect herself. Her winning on-screen dynamic with Burnham would spark a delightful rom com in a cosier alternate universe. Fennell’s assurance behind the camera gives us the courage to stare unflinchingly into the abyss as Cassie makes the perilous descent, transfixed on eye-catching multi-coloured fingernails as they grab on for dear life, hoping to defy gravity and fix what is, sadly, beyond repair.
Find Promising Young Woman in the cinemas
Review: Inspired by actual events, The Reckoning takes hastily scribbled notes from The Crucible and Witchfinder General then fails to decipher them properly to conjure a choking fog of superstition over mid-17th century England as tens of thousands succumb to the Great Plague. Director Neil Marshall conducts a bloodthirsty witch hunt from a script he co-wrote with lead actress Charlotte Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell, which is hamstrung by clunky, repetitive dialogue and two-dimensional characters. Kirk’s woe-begotten heroine, who is falsely accused of witchcraft and subjected to torture in pursuit of a confession, is one-note throughout and when the time comes for tables to turn sickeningly in her favour, fiery vengeance does not register emotionally or psychologically.
The rampant misogyny of the era is hammered home when a pompous landowner on horseback, stares down from his lofty mount at a grieving widow and snarls, “We all have our stations in life. I’m sorry yours is beneath me.” Copious flashbacks and dream sequences, including the central character imagining herself in flagrante delicto with the Devil, bloat the running time and delay a brutal reversal of fortunes teased by the film’s title.
In 1665, year of the Great Plague, fear and paranoia exert a powerful hold on terrified survivors. Convinced the deadly pestilence is the Devil’s work, the state sanctions witchfinders to interrogate and execute anyone suspected of consorting with dark forces, burning the accused alive in front of baying crowds. Farmer’s wife Grace Haverstock (Kirk) is falsely labelled a witch by neighbouring villagers after her husband Joseph (Joe Anderson) takes his own life before the plague ravages his body.
Grace’s landlord, Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington), plants the seeds of suspicion because she rebuffs his unwelcome advances during her period of mourning. Notorious witchfinder John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), who burnt Grace’s mother (Emma Campbell-Jones) at the stake on suspicion of demonic association, arrives with his assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) to extract a confession. “It is a battle of wills now, Grace, and my will is greater than yours,” growls Moorcroft, armed with a dizzying array of blood-letting implements designed to purge a wicked soul.
The Reckoning trundles along inelegantly like a hay wain with a wonky wheel, playing out the combative relationship between Grace and Moorcroft to its depressingly inevitable conclusion. Marshall intersperses their exchanges with lurid gushes of crimson including one forgettable character’s close encounter with a mode of transport. Grace’s friendship with the Squire’s snivelling underling (Callum Goulden), whose evidence could prove her innocence, is casually sketched to lay the groundwork for a phoenix-like rise from the ashes. The damned go up in smoke but director Marshall, who has been neck deep in horror since Dog Soldiers almost 20 years ago, refuses to set his picture ablaze.
Find The Reckoning in the cinemas