She Was Camilla in ‘The Crown.’ Now Emerald Fennell Is Out for Revenge With ‘Promising Young Woman.’
Yes, the actress who plays Camilla Parker Bowles just directed the year’s most shocking #MeToo revenge film. Emerald Fennell takes us inside her “depraved and monstrous” mind.
Promising Young Woman begins with butts.
They are seen gyrating, bouncing, and swiveling, each one kept close in frame during a montage set to Charli XCX’s pop hit “Boys,” the frothy anthem for unapologetically hunk-crazy girls. It’s a smile-inducing, if unexpected song choice for what proves to be an unexpected opening scene.
Writhing and fetishized in the way we’re so used to seeing female bodies leered at on camera, it’s actually frumpy men with their work shirts tucked into unflattering slacks—the grotesque phenomenon otherwise known as “khaki diaper butt”—that writer-director Emerald Fennell is exploiting.
It’s quite the meet-cute between audience and film, which stars Carey Mulligan as a listless barista named Cassie. Cassie dropped out of medical school after her best friend, who was gang-raped after getting drunk at a party, committed suicide when no one did anything about it. Now Cassie spends her nights baiting khaki diaper butts at bars, so-called “good guys” like her former classmates who, she finds, are all too willing to also take advantage of her when she appears to be intoxicated and unwilling to consent.
What she does with the boys once she’s reeled them in, well that’s no fun to spoil. But she does it while a soundtrack that features the likes of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton plays, and while wearing some of the cutest sundresses you’ll see on screen. She’s even really, truly trying to believe in love and grand romance again.
It’s a flirty, feminist, violent, and dark #MeToo revenge-thriller-comedy. In many ways, it really could only have begun with butts and “Boys.”
“Firstly, ‘Boys’ by Charli XCX is just such an absolute bop that it gets everyone in the mood,” Fennell tells The Daily Beast over Zoom ahead of Promising Young Woman’s Christmas Day release.
“But what I really needed to make sure of as early as possible was that people have permission to laugh,” she says. “That even though we're dealing with some incredibly difficult material, it’s also kind of grimly funny. I also loved the idea of starting with a sequence of a slow-mo pan-up of men’s bodies being filmed in a way that young women are always filmed.”
After premiering in January at the Sundance Film Festival and earning status as the film you’d be most likely to hear festivalgoers buzzing about on the streets of Park City, Promising Young Woman’s release now almost a year later is garnering Fennell lots of shocked attention—and not only because of the jaw-dropping sequences she put in the film.
There’s a thing that’s been happening in waves on the internet, in which people are astonished to realize that the same woman who wrote and directed Promising Young Woman and was once showrunner of Killing Eve also played Camilla Parker Bowles on the last two seasons of Netflix’s megahit The Crown.
Asked if she’s noticed any of those tweets, Fennell laughs. “The truth is I’m such a masochist that I had to very quickly learn not to ever look, because if I look, I would be there until like five in the morning looking. I would be down every hole. Every cruel comment would be inscribed on my heart forever. So I don’t look, good or bad.”
Fennell filmed Promising Young Woman when she was seven months pregnant. She wanted to act in a small part in the film, and if you have a keen eye when you watch, you’ll spot her as the beauty influencer in a YouTube makeup tutorial for achieving “perfect blow job lips” that Cassie watches before a night out.
“I just really felt that she and I had a lot in common,” Fennell jokes. But the truth was, she was so visibly pregnant that she needed a role that only showed her face.
Now as a new mother, she maintains that all the attention she’s been getting from playing Camilla on The Crown and now doing press for Promising Young Woman dances between awkward and surreal.
“I am incredibly boring,” she says. “My imaginary life is completely depraved and monstrous and full of Hieronymus Bosch-style orgies. But my real life is very much toast and childcare-based.”
She has channeled that imaginary life into a run as a combination performer-writer-director responsible for crafting the story arcs of women who live on the precipice where stereotypical femininity meets violent destruction, societally induced on otherwise. There’s the assassin in couture on Killing Eve, the soft and bouncy styling of Promising Young Woman’s vengeance, and, well, Camilla Parker Bowles.
While it’s perhaps easier to draw a throughline from the tone of Killing Eve to the mission statement at the core of Promising Young Woman, it’s not that much of a stretch to include her work on The Crown in the same oeuvre. Her specialty has been finding the normalcy in women living lives at extremes, the intrinsic parts of humanity and the unfortunate commonality of traumatic experiences. She interrogates how these lifestyles make the rest of us, in some respects, fearful—or, in regards to Parker Bowles, judgmental.
Sure, the introduction of Diana in The Crown’s recent season and its depiction of the toll Prince Charles’ continued affair with Parker Bowles took on the People’s Princess incited a fan campaign of harassment, with viewers trolling her social media accounts with angry messages.
But there was also a rising tide of people, particularly Americans, surprised to find through Fennell’s charming portrayal that Camilla was actually kind of cool, an assured and magnetic woman with, at least when it comes to Charles, a rather addicting personality.
Fennell’s fascination with Camilla and her inclination that she would be a rich part to play started long before she was cast in The Crown. “She’s just kind of a normal person. That’s the thing: these normal people getting sucked into that crazy machine. That’s why we’re obsessed with it. There’s nothing to compare it to. There’s nothing in the world like it. That family is completely and utterly unique.”
And uniqueness is starting to become Fennell’s brand.
It’s hard to choose an image from Promising Young Woman that best captures the aesthetic that has gotten critics so excited about Fennell’s filmmaking style.
The iconic one used in marketing materials comes from when we’re first introduced to Carey Mulligan as Cassie. She’s center-frame, slumped over on a maroon banquette at a bar, her hair unkempt and practically drooling. She’s visibly wasted, with her arms spread in a meager attempt to hold herself upright. It’s an upsetting image; the men at the bar are looking at her like she’s prey. But it’s also, through Fennell’s lens, somewhat gorgeous and breathtaking.
There’s Cassie walking down the street at dawn, her makeup smeared, clothes disheveled, messy bun strewn about, and barefoot, eating a hot dog with ketchup dripping down her forearm like a trail of blood.
Or Cassie in a sexy nurse outfit, a rainbow-colored wig framing a make-up palette that could be seen from space, and an intensity in her eyes somehow both laser-focused and deranged as she straddles her next target.
These tableaus are all undeniably feminine and pretty, with a kind of brashness and sassiness to them. But the gravitas with which they’re framed makes them rather menacing—unsettling, even.
“The movie is in some ways through Cassie’s point of view, and so it made sense that it would feel like she feels, which is sort of innocuous and pretty and blonde, and innocent and feminine,” Fennell says. “But underneath it was this sort of much darker, more wicked and chaotic streak.”
There’s an expectation that a movie about serious things plays out with a serious look: lots of grays, lots of drabness, lots of stern men around. She wanted to swing a wrecking ball through that.
“I just thought, ‘Why do we think that horrible things only happen under those circumstances?’” Fennell says. “In my life, in all of our lives, there’s nothing that says funerals don’t happen on beautiful days. It seems so much truer to me, particularly about a young woman’s journey, that part of the process of trauma is making things look good.”
“I just sort of thought, I don’t know why there can’t be a movie about this stuff that isn’t full of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and the color pink,” she continues. “Because that’s what the world is for young women when this stuff is going on.”
One of the ways Fennell actively seeks to attack audiences’ conditioned biases about these things is the casting of the film’s predators. She populates the cast with nostalgic crushes from classic teen TV shows and movies, “internet boyfriends” that go viral because they’re so “nice,” and actors known, basically, for being beloved.
Cassie’s first target on her revenge mission, the man at the bar who sees her drunkenness as an opportunity to hook up, is played by Adam Brody, aka Seth Cohen from The OC. Some of the other rapey men are played by Superbad’s McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse; the adorably earnest Richard Splett from Veep, Sam Richardson; and New Girl’s charmingly smug Schmidt, Max Greenfield.
“This is a film about good boys,” Fennell says. “And it’s a film about people who really do think that they’re good, who really do believe that their skeezy behavior is sort of normal. They believe that because it has been completely normalized in society for years. There’s not much in this film that isn’t in a comedy of the last 10 or 15 years that we’ve laughed at.”
Because you love these actors from their previous projects, you’re “put in that sticky position where you’re seeing somebody you like do something you don’t like.” It’s a very modern, very real experience that people are starting to have: “Their lines are very clearly drawn until somebody that they like and respect is standing on the wrong side of it.”
The biggest crisis of conscience in that regard comes thanks to the casting of comedian-turned-filmmaker Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade) as a former classmate who begins dating Cassie. Burnham delivers a performance so instantly swoon-inducing that, when the cards start to fall, you’re immediately conflicted.
He and Mulligan have a memorable scene in which they lip sync to Paris Hilton’s cheesy pop song “Stars Are Blind” while dancing through the aisles of a drug store. It may be one of the most giggly, romantic moments put on film in years. Ever since Promising Young Woman premiered at Sundance, critics and journalists haven’t stopped talking about it.
“For me, that scene is so much about what falling in love feels like,” Fennell says. “If you’re someone like Cassie who’s been alone for so long, who’s been on this kind of grim, relentless road, the thing that’s gonna pull you away from it needs to be extraordinary. So it needed to feel like the most romantic moment in the world, because even she has to not be able to resist it. And we as an audience will also be rooting for it. Because we want things to happen. We want romance to be able to save the day.”
(To say any more about it would definitely spoil things.)
For as many best-of lists Promising Young Woman’s landed on, both at Sundance and now in end-of-year roundups, there have been vocal critics of its stylized look at rape culture and the politics of who is in control of justice—or revenge—for victims. It’s a button-pushing film and, with some viewers, it has triggered loud alarms.
As Variety reported in an earlier interview with Fennell and Mulligan, there was some commotion between two audience members during the film’s first test screening. One of them was heard yelling, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay!” The other walked out.
Promising Young Woman is an undeniably audacious entry in a post-#MeToo climate. It’s a film exploring the emotional and psychological effects of sexual assault, not to mention simply existing as a woman in a society structured to dismiss male aggression. The idea that it could be described as “fucking badass” and inspire an army of online “stans” might not sit right with some people.
But there’s something invigorating about the way in which Fennell’s film charges into the #MeToo conversation—and the entire cultural fortress built to protect shitty men—with explosives strapped to its chest. Once it detonates, we’re made to pick through the rubble, forced to examine each painful piece, wondering how we’re going to rebuild something so broken.
“This isn’t just a story about a woman’s desire for revenge,” Fennell says. “It’s someone looking to forgive other people and forgive herself, but nobody will say that the thing that happened and the things that happen are bad. That’s something that we’re all experiencing now because things change very fast. And that’s OK. But what you can’t do when things change is just pretend that they’ve always been that way, that everyone always felt that way, and that all of these things were always thought of as bad.”
While she understands that filmmakers and cultural critics work in an industry in which the nuances of assault and agency have been discussed at length, Fennell’s motivation is the number of people she knows in life—and who exist in the world—who aren’t having those conversations. They are the people who still believe things like a woman who gets too drunk on a date and then goes home with someone is herself to blame for what happens next.
Shaking it up and being clear, blunt, and brutal about it is entirely the point.
“I feel like it’s going to make the film sound like some awful kind of chore,” she says. “I’m sorry if it’s not nice and it’s not easy, because I am genuinely sorry that it isn’t nice or easy. I don’t think so many experiences have been nice or easy. I think it’s interesting that, even in a movie like this, it’s still expected to go the way that everyone wants it to go and it’s still expected to be nice.”
With a wallop of a statement just waiting, like Promising Young Woman, to be unpacked, Fennell concludes: “It’s just not nice.”