Five Oscar nominations this morning for Promising Young Woman place Emerald Fennell’s searing and darkly comic drama about a woman avenging her friend after a sexual assault among the frontrunners for this year’s Academy Awards. For Fennell and Best Actress nominee Carey Mulligan, it’s a moment of celebration, but also a chance to reflect, after a weekend in their native UK in which violence by men against women has dominated headlines, following the killing of Sarah Everard, and a candlelight vigil held in her honor in London that was disrupted by an aggressive police force.
“What our film addresses, really, are the things that we have normalized in our culture that are not normal and not acceptable,” Mulligan said this morning. “What we’ve heard from women so much in the past few days is how they’ve had to adapt, just for being women. ‘I walk home carrying my keys,’ or ‘I change my shoes before I leave the office so that I can run.’ All of the ways we have all grown up accepting something that is unacceptable.”
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“Suddenly it feels like people are listening for the first time,” says Fennell. “It feels like people are receptive to the conversation. I’m incredibly upset, as everyone is, with what’s going on. And if any of us can contribute to that conversation, if any of us can make it easier to have this kind of talk, then that’s incredible.”
“Art, cinema, television, music, they all have the ability to be a part of a really important conversation,” Mulligan adds. “If this film does illuminate any of this stuff, and if it causes anybody to reflect on anything to do with this issue, that contributes, and I would hope that would be the case, but of course it’s so beyond my remit.”
For Mulligan, finding the character in Promising Young Woman was particularly challenging, and part of the reason she signed up. “I knew I needed to avoid trying to play any particular genre, and particularly not revenge or comedy, and that I needed to just try and tell the truth. And then I just trusted Emerald, really, and that was all I needed to do.”
Fennell is nominated for her direction and screenplay, and the film is in the Best Picture mix. For the first time in Oscar history, two women—Fennell and Chloé Zhao—are nominated in the directing category. “It’s so amazing,” she says. “We are 51% of the population, so it’s about time. But also, to be nominated next to her. She’s so brilliant, so incredible. There were so many female filmmakers this year who were so brilliant, who I would have dreamed to be in the same breath as. I’m so grateful to be part of this historic year, but I’m also doubly grateful to all of the women who have done this job for years and years and years and made it easier bit by bit, by pushing and working. They’ve made it easier for the rest of us to get our films financed and made. So, for me I feel very much Iike I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Trying, she says, to not sound “too Pollyanna”, Fennell feels especially thrilled, given the small scale of the production. “We made it in 23 days. It’s an independent movie on an independent budget. Every single person who worked on it, worked on it because they believed in it and they thought there was a chance it could be interesting. Everyone took a pay cut. And so, for their work and their faith and trust, to be acknowledged by the Academy, I’ve been basically crying since I found out.”
Mulligan’s nomination, she says, is particularly gratifying. “The best person in the world, the kindest, the most talented person. And Fred [Thoraval] the editor. It was tight. We had so little. It was such fine commitment.”
Adds Mulligan: “It’s surreal because Oscars were the furthest thing from our minds as we were making it. It was such a passion project. Everyone was doing it because they loved it and they thought Emerald was a genius. They wanted to be a part of it. I’m so proud of Emerald.”
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