Promising Young Woman stars a scorching Carey Mulligan as a vigilante

Promising Young Woman MA, 5 stars

It's that time of the cinema year where a glut of worthy films get released onto the market, in part because in a normal year half the world would be on holidays and not isolating at home and able to get to the cinemas more often, but also because the awards seasons are about to start.

A film with a scorching Oscar-contender performance, like Carey Mulligan's in this film, stands a greater chance of taking home the gongs when it is fresh in the minds of the voting audience.

Mulligan is Cassandra, the young woman of promise. There's more than enough promise there, but the promising medical career she once pursued has been abandoned, to the simmering resentment of her supportive parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown).

A rape at college prompted Cassandra's childhood best friend Nina to take her life, and Cassy has fuelled her anger with the system that didn't want to believe Nina or pursue justice on her behalf, and with men in general. Like Charles Bronson's Death Wish character, Cassandra turns vigilante.

Feigning fall-down-drunk, Cassandra hits the bars and nightclubs of her city and allows men to escort her safely home. As we see in the film's earlier scenes, a succession of men (Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) prove they are no gentlemen at all, attempting to take advantage of Cassy's apparent unconscious form before she turns the tables on them.

Recording the experiences in her diary later, we see lists of names, and a disturbingly large tally, some recorded in red pen, some in black. We can only imagine to what the colour scheme refers.

A former medical school friend of Cassandra's, Ryan (Bo Burnham), wanders into the coffee shop she works at, and asks her out. Cassy has invested so much in her anger and her cause that Ryan's charm faces a seemingly losing battle. He continues to try.

But Ryan's casual dropping of stories about their college contemporaries, now pursuing successful medical careers, reignites Cassandra on her quest.

Film and television actress Elizabeth Fennell makes her feature film debut in the most incendiary way with this zeitgeist-capturing film. Fennell is on our small screens at the moment playing Camilla Parker-Bowles in The Crown, and her writing is familiar to us, with her penning a number of episodes of Killing Eve. What a talent.

Humour is one of the deceptively effacing charms of Fennell's screenplay. It is as deadly a weapon as the other tool she employs - the violence, her caustic reading of imbalanced gender relationships and not just on university campuses.

Fennell employs comedic performers Coolidge and Anna Gasteyer in straight roles, as Cassy and Nina's mothers. Our disappointed expectations add a layer of pathos.

Similarly, stand-up comedian Burnham injects a sense of warmth and humour as Ryan. He had his own outstanding filmmaking debut in 2019 as writer and director of Eighth Grade which won a glut of awards from film critics' circles.

Alison Brie from Community is equally great, but Mulligan owns this film.

Cassandra was a figure in Greek mythology, cursed to speak the truth but never be believed. Mulligan's Cassandra blazes truth. She holds a torch to hypocrisy. There is a tweak to her eyebrow, a knowing set of her laugh lines that make you wonder whether this is black comedy or is this what Farrah Fawcett's The Burning Bed has morphed into.

The film is highly stylised. Its music use is tongue-in-cheek, beginning with its opening sequence that sexualises drunk middle-aged male office workers dancing to Charlie XCX's Boys, the camera playing on the concept of the male gaze that will prompt thousands of university film studies essays in years to come.

There is an ominous soundscape that disturbs the bowels in a cinema with good Dolby.

Without spoiling it, this film has one of those The Crying Game moments. The kind you don't spoil for those watching it after you. The kind you're just bursting to spoil and you want your friends to see so you can discuss it.

A second viewing of the film is a different experience knowing it is coming.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Picture: Roadshow

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Picture: Roadshow

This story Caustic film captures the zeitgeist first appeared on The Canberra Times.