Not every Carey Mulligan movie begins with a Charli XCX song, but maybe more of them should. When “Promising Young Woman” deploys the 2017 pop bop “Boys” in its opening moments, it’s the first sign you’re about to get something from Mulligan that you’re not used to: namely, a contemporary setting.
“I know that for a cinema audience, I’m just constantly in period costume,” Mulligan said recently, shrugging her shoulders in an oversized red sweater. She was video-chatting with me from her British country house in Devon, where she had sequestered herself in a darkened music room typically used by her husband, Marcus Mumford, from the band Mumford & Sons. A single, solitary lamp illuminated her, as single, solitary lamps often do with Mulligan.
You’ll find little more than a meager light source in many of the 35-year-old actress’s most recent movies, which include “Far From the Madding Crowd,” set around 1870, “Suffragette,” about equal-rights protests in 1912 Britain, and “Mudbound,” which begins in the year 1939. It has been nearly a decade since Mulligan starred in a modern-day film — Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” from 2011 — a span of time that initially surprised even her.
“I think of ‘Wildlife’ as being kind of contemporary!” she insisted. I had to point out that the 2018 domestic drama, in which Mulligan plays a restless mother on the brink of an affair, takes place 60 years ago.
This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it is a thing, and it’s part of the reason that “Promising Young Woman” lands like a lightning strike: Imagine the cognitive dissonance of taking, say, Audrey Hepburn out of her midcentury roles and plopping her into a thoroughly 2020 movie about consent, revenge and stalking your college acquaintances on Facebook. And imagine, in doing so, that she turned in the performance of her career.
A black comedy told in pastels, “Promising Young Woman” casts Mulligan as Cassie, a disaffected med-school dropout whose life has never been the same since her best friend was raped in college. Lately, Cassie has come up with a confrontational way to deal with her grief: She’ll go to a nightclub, arrange herself in a vulnerable position — typically slumped on a banquette, acting too drunk to stand or even speak — and wait to see if a guy will seize upon the tableau as an opportunity. Depressingly, someone always does.
Of course, the guy doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong: He’s just offering Cassie a “safe ride home” that happens to go back to his place. There, he will advance on her splayed body until Cassie suddenly sits up, revealing her sobriety just as he is about to assault her. “But I’m a nice guy!” he will sputter, caught in the act. Cassie’s inevitable reply: “Are you?”
The film is a tonal tightrope walk, and Mulligan is astonishing in it. There is so much about Cassie that an actress might be tempted to overplay — her biting sense of humor, her well-defended soulsickness, the startling lengths to which she’ll go in her mission — but Mulligan makes the character feel achingly real. And sometimes, as if it were as easy as breathing, she can convey all of those warring traits in the space of a single line.
“She is so unfailingly truthful and about as grounded as an actress gets,” said Emerald Fennell, the writer-director of “Promising Young Woman.” By casting Mulligan, Fennell sought to steer clear of a more stereotypical presentation of female revenge, which would portray Cassie as “a woman walking down the street in slow-mo with a fire burning behind her,” as Fennell put it.
Mulligan can do big and has done big. She played Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s swirling, maximal adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” after all. But she is inherently down to earth in a way that benefits her characters, and in conversation, she comes across as wry, understated and observant. “Hardly anybody I’m friends with is in our industry,” she noted.
With other actors onscreen, you can sometimes sense a yawning gulf between the celebrity and who they’re playing, but Mulligan is able to make a person like Cassie seem like … well, a person. Perhaps it’s a testament to Mulligan’s low-key nature as a movie star that she can do something enormously high-key — like marrying the frontman of a famous band — and somehow it feels like a fun bonus fact about her, rather than an inextricable part of her mystique.
Does she feel she’s been typecast as a period actress? Mulligan is quick to point out that she’s played at least two contemporary roles onstage over the last several years, in “Girls & Boys” and “Skylight.” But really, she said, it’s just rare for a contemporary movie to come along with an antiheroine as complicated as Cassie, whose mission is righteous even when her methods may be mad.
“I never feel like I need to agree with everything that a character does for me to be along with the ride, and we never do with men,” Mulligan said. “Cassie has every right to be as closed down, as abrasive, as unpleasant, as vindictive as she likes, because she’s been through hell. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about her.”
LAST MONTH, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. Mulligan was reading a screenplay and when a female character was introduced, the description said, “Beautiful but doesn’t know it.”
If you’re an actress in Hollywood, you’re familiar with that phrase. And in the 10 years since Mulligan was nominated for an Oscar for playing a schoolgirl seduced by an older man in “An Education,” she has certainly come across that sort of description more than she’d like.
“I kind of can’t believe it still happens,” she said. “But it does.”
We wondered aloud about the deeper meaning of a description like that. Do men write it to turn other men on? Maybe to them, it isn’t pertinent whether a female character is a nurse, a marketing executive or a serial killer — what matters most is conveying that this fictional woman is out of your league, but you’d still have a shot with her.
It may seem like a little thing, but those little things add up in Hollywood, where the way women are viewed becomes something the whole world can watch. That’s why Fennell told all the men to play their nightclub scenes with Mulligan as though they were the heroes of their own romantic comedy: In another era, they would have been.
Just look at seminal comedies like “Animal House,” in which a college freshman debates date-raping a passed-out girl, or “Sixteen Candles,” when Molly Ringwald’s love interest leaves his blackout-drunk girlfriend with a virgin nerd and tells him, “Do anything you want.”
“I’ve seen all these films and laughed along and didn’t really think about it,” Mulligan said. “And then you sit back and think, ‘Oh gosh, that’s actually not funny at all. That’s horrendous!’ It really takes some thought to not just go along with those laughs.”
Fennell concurred. “It’s so embedded in our culture that so many people don’t really understand what’s wrong about it still,” she said. “I wanted to have a film that shows them, that’s sneaking it in the guise of something fun.”
The movie they’ve made is as sticky and dangerous as a spider’s web, and men’s reactions to it can be telling. Before the pandemic scuttled its original spring release, “Promising Young Woman” had a buzzy debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival. I asked Mulligan if she had read any of the responses to it then, and she winced.
“I read the Variety review, because I’m a weak person,” Mulligan said. “And I took issue with it.” She paused, debating whether she really wanted to go there. “It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse,” she said, finally.
Though “Promising Young Woman” earned its fair share of raves at Sundance, Variety seemed stumped by the movie and strongly implied that Mulligan had been miscast. “Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her,” read the review. “Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blond hair feels like a put-on.”
Mulligan can still recite some of the lines from that review. But she said, “It wasn’t some sort of ego-wounding thing — like, I fully can see that Margot Robbie is a goddess.” What bothered Mulligan most was that people might read a high-profile critique of any actress’s physical appearance and blithely accept it: “It drove me so crazy. I was like, ‘Really? For this film, you’re going to write something that is so transparent? Now? In 2020?’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
It’s all the more ironic for Mulligan because “Promising Young Woman” explicitly grapples with the litany of cultural expectations about how a woman ought to look and behave. There’s even a man who calls Cassie beautiful and then, in the same breath, gives her a disingenuous lecture about why she’s wearing too much makeup.
“We don’t allow women to look normal anymore, or like a real person,” Mulligan said. “Why does every woman who’s ever onscreen have to look like a supermodel? That has shifted into something where the expectation of beauty and perfection onscreen has gotten completely out of control.”
Men were hardly more enlightened in the period pieces Mulligan has made, but that was often the point of those movies, wasn’t it? When her characters asserted their independence, as in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” or fought for the right to vote in “Suffragette,” you could watch from your privileged vantage point in the present and think, “They were ahead of their time.” In that way and in others, they were modern women, too.
You expect more these days, but maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe that’s the lesson of “Promising Young Woman”: that you’d better stay on your toes, and that you’ll have to push back even when people would rather you just drop it. Even Mulligan, after a brief crisis of confidence — “Maybe I shouldn’t have said it was Variety,” she fretted — would eventually decide that what she wanted to say was worth committing to. The more we idealize women, she told me, the more we rob them of what actually makes them interesting.
“I just don’t think that’s really what storytelling or acting needs to be about,” she said. “Things can be beautiful without being perfect.”