"It's really difficult to describe where things come from … they tend to just arrive in a weird way," says Emerald Fennell. The British actor-filmmaker, 35, is trying to pinpoint the start for her directorial debut Promising Young Woman, a startling rape-revenge tale and major awards contender this year. In the film, Carey Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, a medical school dropout who is on a mission to avenge the devastating abuse her friend suffered.
"The first moment that came to me was one of the first moments in the film, which was Cassie passed out on a bed and somebody undressing her, and then she sits up to reveal that she's not drunk. And then everything else sort of grew out of that."
It's undeniably an arresting image – one of several in a film that is designed to spark debate on the subject of sexual abuse, revenge and the treatment of those who come forward.
"It provokes thought, it provokes conversation," says Mulligan of the film, for which she has been nominated for a clutch of awards – including Best Actress at the Academy Awards, on Monday, April 26. After her work in contentious movies such as Steve McQueen's drama Shame, it's clear this is the sort of story that attracts her.
“I am interested in being in films that when you leave the cinema at the end, you can’t stop talking about it. Whether that’s all entirely positive or negative, or a mixture of both.”
Fennell, who previously worked as a showrunner on season two of the violent BBC drama Killing Eve, about a female assassin, first realised how divisive Promising Young Woman was at a test screening when a violent argument broke out between two female audience members "during one of the more difficult scenes"; however, Fennell refuses to say which scene. "It was the first time we'd seen it with a real audience. It was amazing to see that it had such an immediate response and reaction."
Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival last year, Promising Young Woman has sustained this momentum throughout awards season – gaining four Golden Globe, five Oscar and six Bafta nominations.
On Sunday, Fennell won a Bafta for Best Original Screenplay, while the film also took the Outstanding British Film award. Fennell is also nominated for three Oscars, including Best Director. She and Nomadland's Chloe Zhao have made history as the first two female filmmakers to be nominated for the Oscars in the same year.
Unquestionably, Promising Young Woman feels like a film that's utterly timely, arriving in the wake of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements that were formed after revelations surrounding producer Harvey Weinstein's acts of sexual misconduct. While this led to much soul-searching in Hollywood – and further allegations against other prominent figures – Fennell's work is not set in the glamorous world of movie stars. Rather, its ordinariness is what makes it so potent.
Fennell, who is best known to audiences for playing Camilla Parker Bowles in season four of The Crown, says it was a subject "worthy of interrogation", but makes it clear she's not trying to make a statement. "I don't have any answers," she says. "I wanted to see if the revenge thriller and the romantic comedy, these kinds of genres I grew up with, could bear the weight of a real woman."
Yes, despite its dark subject matter, Promising Young Woman can feel shaped like a romcom at times. The colour scheme is bright pinks and pastels, and Mulligan even lip-syncs, down a supermarket aisle, to a Paris Hilton track, in one scene.
"It was just all very kind of uncharted territory," says Mulligan, who admits the script and Cassie made her nervous. "Because she's so unpredictable and not particularly likeable in some places. And yeah … I didn't quite know how to figure her out. There's some characters that you read, usually the really dull two-dimensional wife or girlfriend, where you go: 'Oh, yeah. I know how to do her.'" But the mercurial Cassie was another matter. "It seemed like a sort of really tricky puzzle."
Mulligan dived into her character through research, including reading Jon Krakauer's 2015 book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. The book follows a series of case studies of women assaulted in the titular Montana town, with many of the cases linked to the University of Montana. "That investigated the subject from a lot of different angles, and I found that very helpful," she says.
As the film's title suggests, it deals with the psychological stain left by abuse – and the pain of trying to overcome it. "It's a film about the lost promise of a lot of women," says Fennell. "And also how difficult it is to say: 'I'm not giving up. I don't accept that this is right.'"
But it’s also an unsettling film that leaves viewers unnerved. “Everyone in this film, and everyone watching the film is uncomfortable,” acknowledges Fennell. “There are choices that Cassie makes, which are debatable because it’s uncomfortable to know that there might be somebody in the world who won’t let go of something.”
Intriguingly, Fennell deliberately chose familiar and comforting male faces, such as Adam Brody (The OC), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) and Max Greenfield (New Girl) to play the men Cassie encounters. "They are often incredibly good looking. They are often friends of yours. They're often friends of your friend," Fennell says.
Admittedly, the film is nowhere near as shocking as the recent Violation, another rape-revenge tale (from co-writer/directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli) that takes the genre to extremes. "Who does commit acts of revenge in real life?" asks Fennell. "I think that's why movies are so engaging: we get to see people do the things that we wish we were able to do ourselves. Certainly for me if this film has got anything [to say] it is that revenge is futile in the face of an uncaring world."
Whatever the case, Fennell and Mulligan have clearly struck a nerve.
Promising Young Woman is in UAE cinemas now