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In Defence of Promising Young Woman's Ending

It has been many weeks since Promising Young Woman (PYW) first graced our screens, but discussions around the film’s impact are still bubbling on. In particular, a large amount of commentary has focused on the film’s ending. At this point, it is worth me clarifying that, yes, *spoiler alert* if you haven’t yet watched the film, you probably need to stop reading here.

Carey Mulligan as Cassie in Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman. Focus Features

Fennell’s debut film deftly parodies the happy-go-lucky veneer of 00s romantic comedies; piercing the bubble of perceived normality that surrounds them. Red cups dripping with alcohol and guys joking about how drunk they can get girls (normally in pursuance of a sexual venture) are tropes so pervasive that even their mention conjures up images of an American frat house replete with kegs of beer, kitsch outfits and myriad different-but-the-same testosterone fuelled chants. The effect of years and years of rom-coms produced and directed by men, is the normalisation of these environments, and by logical consequence: certain cultural scripts. As Fennel herself notes, the so called romances in these films

begin in the midst of… blackout[s]… and any girl who is dumb enough to leave her body just lying around … well, she’s fair game’.

You’ve seen the film(s) – girl gets invited to guys’ house. Party. Girl gets blackout drunk. Guys make jokes and bets. Guy and girl enter bedroom. Morning. Guy cheered by friends. Girl chastised for being a slut. Too drunk. And the list goes on…

Fennell, Focus Features, 2020.

This is the backdrop that casts Cassandra, the protagonist of PYW into focus. Well aware of this toxic culture and its effects from personal experience, her respective quest for revenge illuminates broader failings within associated institutions and systems. Universities, lawyers and the police – all complicit; united often in negligence, and wallowing in cultural complacency and the conflation of sexual assault with ideas of banter and raunch culture – the latter both terms that in Fennell’s words slather ‘ a shiny peppermint gloss’ over the normalisation of sexual violence.

How can a film with this strong impetus end satisfactorily, you might ask?

Those who have seen Promising Young Woman (and hopefully if you haven’t you aren’t still reading at this point) will recall that the final scene entails the entrance of the police and the arrest of the man who killed Cassie and raped her best friend. For this reason, commentators such as hosts of NY Times podcast ‘Still Processing’, have expressed discontent, arguing that the ending seems to reify the police as saviours, despite the film being premised on the failures of the criminal justice system.

In defence of the ending, I’m not entirely sure that this objection adequately accounts for the context of the police’s arrival nor for the fact that involvement in arresting the perpetrators is consciously depicted as part-fantasy. The po po arrive exactly as Cassie’s pre-planned messages are received – how neat and tidy! This surreal sense of ‘justice’ (one that is very much gilded with camp-ness) is consistent with the film’s enduring duality; harrowing subject matter encased with pastel colours, Britney Spears songs, and glimpses of happiness – in short, fantasy, borne out of a dystopian reality.

Fennell, Focus Features, 2020.

Whilst Cassie was alive, grappling for understanding and accountability was her raison d’etre, yet the arduousness of this quest only brought with it her own demise. Despite various plots, justice remained elusive – and this foundational fact of the film is consistent with the experience of nearly all real-life victims of sexual assault. It’s all too easy to be taken in with the veneer of deliciousness of the final scene and forget that the arrests were only made possible by virtue of Cassie’s willingness to risk her life, and the respective foresight she had to send pre-planned messages, including to a legal professional. Without this, who knows whether the police would have come at all? The film itself is fairly self conscious on the point, and we see one of the characters who assisted in covering up Cassie’s murder running off into the surrounding woodland – emblematic of the ease with which white middle class straight men, particularly those we perceive to be ‘nice guys’, can avoid accountability, notwithstanding the involvement of the police. It’s easy to forget that an arrest is only one part of the story, and we are left, I think, well aware of the fact that Cassie’s murderer may well escape charges and/or conviction. Last year in the UK just 1.4% of reported rape cases resulted in a suspect being charged, let alone convicted.

Far from being a confused ending in praise of the police, the film’s final moments firmly continue a macabre satire of the criminal justice system’s failings - with the ending showing both a glimpse of accountability (albeit still glistening with the film’s hallmark sense of fantasy and camp romanticism), and an awareness of the difficulty associated with securing justice in cases involving sexual violence against women. Only erroneous conclusions will be drawn if the ending is viewed in a vacuum and, on the contrary, meaning should be derived from the final scenes with the rest of the film at the forefront of our minds.

Fennell, Focus Features, 2020.

The superficial sense of justice that the ending gives us is the result of a fantastical premeditated plot and the loss of two lives. This is not what it should take for the first glimpse of justice to appear; and this is undeniably what Fennel compels us to remember. The dreamlike quality of the film’s ending also needs to be noted, and there is an undeniable sense of fantasy; fantasy being an apt word here, because although we want the police to work, they, like other institutions, do not in this context. In making the film self conscious of this, Fennell reminds us of a more poignant point – namely that there is no perfect solution, at present, for female victims of sexual violence. PYW’s ending is both self-aware and a rallying cry for change. It is not a vanilla piece of pro-police propaganda.

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