The upcoming Oscars will be notable for many reasons, including the fact that for the first time in the award show’s history, more than one female filmmaker has made it onto the list of Best Director nominees in the same year. Considering that only five women have been nominated in that category during the entirety of the Academy Awards’ existence, it’s a notable win for inclusion. We previously covered Chloé Zhao, one of this year’s nominated directors, and now it’s time to spotlight Emerald Fennell, who is also up for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture for Promising Young Woman.
It’s an impressive accomplishment, especially since it’s Fennell’s feature film debut and the critical acclaim that the revenge thriller has received so far bodes well for the rise of its auteur. Fennell’s story follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), a barista by day and vigilante by night. That is to say, she goes to bars and pretends to be drunk to attract predatory men. And once they inevitably take her home, Cassie drops the feigned inebriation to confront them and offer a lesson on consent. The driving force behind her mission is a traumatic event that happened to her best friend when they were in medical school, which also led to them both dropping out.
In its coverage of the film, BBC News points out that “it would be easy to think Promising Young Woman is a feminist polemic which unfairly tarnishes all men with the same brush.” But it also houses female characters who are targeted by Cassie for their behavior concerning issues of non-consensual sex. “There have been so many people, so many women too, myself included, there are times when none of us behaved in ways we should’ve, were supportive enough or took things seriously enough,” Fennell told the publication in regard to the topic. In an interview with Deadline, the auteur expanded on the idea. “It’s such a difficult and complicated thing to talk about,” Fennell shared. “Using actors that we love and trust — whether they’re male or female — was really important.”
When it came to the actor she entrusted to carry the film as its lead, Fennell told Gold Derby that Mulligan was the clear choice. “When I first spoke to her after she read the script, I just was so struck by how unbelievably perceptive and funny and honest she was,” the filmmaker recalled. “So yeah, it was just a sort of gut feeling and just a lifelong fandom on my part.” And the admiration goes both ways. “I got sent the script in January [of 2019] and was completely floored,” Mulligan told Vogue. “I’d never read anything like it, and so, two days later, we had coffee and I geekily fawned over her and told her I wanted to do the film.”
Landing Mulligan helped attract other actors to the film, which boasts a powerhouse cast. “When you have somebody at the center as brilliant and surprising and amazing as Carey is, firstly, it makes it easy to cast because everyone wants to work with her,” Fennell shared during the same Deadline interview. “She’s just a magnet for talent.” Some of the other notable cast members include names like Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Bo Burnham and Alison Brie.
Fennell is also familiar with working in front of the camera and even makes a small cameo in Promising Young Woman as a video blogger giving a makeup tutorial. The 35-year-old multihyphenate may be better known, though, for her previous roles as Nurse Patsy on the BBC drama Call the Midwife and Camilla Parker Bowles on Netflix’s The Crown. She has impressive TV credits as a filmmaker, as well, and earned two Emmy nominations for her work as the co-showrunner on the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve. And her feature film debut is cementing Fennell’s place in this year’s awards season with a recent win at the Writers Guild Awards for Best Original Screenplay, as well as a nomination from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film. Time will tell if Fennell will take home one or multiple wins from the upcoming DGA Awards and the Academy Awards, but in the meantime, she’s certainly earned her spotlight.