In the era of the great side hustle, we’ve become accustomed to multi-hyphenated talents whose careers include more than a single descriptor. Even so, Emerald Fennell has set a new standard. The 34-year-old British actor, author, and screenwriter has just added director to her list of titles with the upcoming Promising Young Woman—a revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan— which she wrote and directed. Were it not for the film’s dark subject matter, its title could easily be an allusion to Fennell herself.
Carey Mulligan (front) stars as Cassie and Bo Burnham (back) stars as Ryan in director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassie (Mulligan): by day, a med-school drop-out turned barista, and by night, a feminist vigilante who lures the most insidious of sexual abusers—unexpected predators and so-called “nice guys”—into situations where she seems too inebriated to give consent. Once their intentions to take advantage are clear, she rips them a proverbial new one, spewing elegant witticisms and trapping them in their own predatory urges. “I wanted to make a movie that discussed a specific grey area that hasn’t really been interrogated before,” says Fennell of her directorial debut. “There is nothing bad that happens in this movie that we haven’t merrily laughed about, in a different context, in a mainstream comedy of the last 10 or 15 years.” In a post-#MeToo world, though, what were once passed off as seduction techniques feel different, and through Cassie’s journey toward her own justice, we relate to her own heartbreaking motives.
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie in director Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman.
All of this is done brilliantly through Fennell’s intentionally girlish gaze: Cassie sports Easter-egg nail polish and lives with her parents inside a Pepto-pink home. “I wanted Cassie’s home to be oppressively feminine,” she says. It conjures a similarly ironic visual to that of Killing Eve’s sociopathic assassin, Villanelle, traipsing through the streets of Paris in a frothy pink dress. Fennell, who took over from Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Season 2 of the hit show, was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards in part for her work in building the lethal persona of its protagonist (played by Jodie Comer). “You have to really, really believe what every character is saying—no matter how much of a bastard or a sociopath,” she says. “That sounds so facile, but it’s amazing how often you can feel a writer’s agenda in a character’s mouth.”
Director of photography Benjamin Kracun, writer/director Emerald Fennell, actor Sam Richardson, and actor Carey Mulligan on the set of Promising Young Woman.
Of her particular knack for creating complex female characters, she says, “Writing women and men feels the same, really; we’re all good and bad and wonderful and disgusting—the interesting thing is where those tensions arise in all our personalities.”
Fennell recently took on yet another complicated figure on The Crown, playing Camilla Parker Bowles, who she refers to as just a “normal woman caught up in all the madness.” She plays a big part in Promising Young Woman, too (look out for a YouTube tutorial teaching Cassie how to perfect “blow job lips”), but when asked if she’d ever centre a plot around herself, she jokes, “I’m by far too vain to write or direct a real part for myself—it would all be ‘Alison, 35 (but could be 19), the most beautiful and charismatic woman in the world, rides into the ballroom in slow motion on her unicorn, and watches with disdain as her lovers, Ryan Gosling and Leonardo DiCaprio, fight to the death over her hand.’”
Fennell is currently working on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based off her book, a modernized retelling of Cinderella. Her career is moving at breakneck speed, though when asked if she could ever envision doing just one thing, she says, “I can possibly see myself having a nervous breakdown and whittling spoons in the woods, but sadly, I’ll be cramming in as much as I can for as long as I can.”