Emerald Fennell: the wickedly funny screen princess of darkness

Vanessa Thorpe
Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

When the camera follows a young woman as she staggers around a bar, slurring her words, she is conventionally marked out as a victim. A judgmental film director might even indicate she is deserving of scorn. But what if this vulnerable target is actually the one deciding who really deserves what – and then meting out her own brutal form of justice? This is the subversive premise of the directorial debut from the British actress, screenwriter and author Emerald Fennell.

Her film, Promising Young Woman, is released next month and opens with scenes that show Cassie Thomas, a medical school dropout played by Carey Mulligan, apparently indulging in just the sort of self-destructive alcoholic behaviour seen recently from other modern anti-heroines, such as Rachel in The Girl on the Train, or the eponymous Daphne in the admired off-beat British film of 2017. The difference this time is that Cassie has been weaponised by a damaging experience in her past. And although she is clinging on to a job in a coffee shop and still living with her parents at 30, she is no longer anyone’s victim. The result, according to the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin is a “wild and righteous provocation” of a film.

As an actress Fennell will already be familiar to fans of either The Crown or Call the Midwife, where she has played, respectively, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Patsy the closet lesbian. But for this film she has not just stepped behind the camera as director, but also re-worked an existing screenplay to reflect contemporary attitudes and to puncture some common assumptions. At the Sundance film festival, where Promising Young Woman premiered this January, critics were ambushed by its unusual, dark tone. An editorial in the spring edition of the film magazine Little White Lies celebrated what several pundits have admired in the director’s voice: “Fennell’s pitch-black comedy is hard to stomach at times, but a piercing, vital addition to the growing canon of films that allow women to speak for themselves rather than through the gaze of men.”

If the film’s violent twist works with audiences, as many reviewers have been slightly surprised to admit, it could be because Fennell has made sure that her story does more than just chime with a worthy Times Up message. While other upcoming feminist offerings, such as the Weinstein-inspired drama The Assistant, starring Julia Garner and Matthew Macfadyen, are also set to give us leading women who are prepared to fight back, Fennell’s debut feels like a more focused correction to some of the wicked fun she recently had working as the show-runner and lead writer on the second series of the wildly successful television show Killing Eve.

Born in London and educated at the exclusive Marlborough College and then at Oxford, Fennell was selected by Phoebe Waller-Bridge to take over the drama developed from Luke Jennings’s novelas. It was an honour, in the light of the global impact of the show, and a demonstration of faith in another young female writer. In the end, Fennell’s handling of the tale of the hitwoman and the obsessive sleuth hunting her down proved not quite as popular as the first series, but it continued to deliver a succession of stylishly amoral assassinations. Now, in Cassie, Fennell has found another violent leading lady, but one on a less random and more ethically nuanced mission to punish mankind. Not all men are guilty here, and appearances can deceive.

As the Guardian critic who saw Promising Young Woman at the film festival in Utah noted: “One of the film’s aces is showing us that sexual assault can come in an innocuous package, from an Oxford shirt-wearing, soft-speaking ‘nice’ guy who can quickly flip into a destructive mode when he thinks the power is in his hands.”

Since Sundance the title of the film has been applied to Fennell herself several times. And if she still “promises” much, she is clearly set to fulfil public expectation this year. “From her work on Killing Eve to her short film Careful How You Go, Fennell has always demonstrated a fascination with the grey spaces of morality, and her debut feature is no exception – it’s a meticulous, candy-coloured fairy tale with a blistering central performance from Carey Mulligan that’s quite unlike anything she’s done before. Provocative and recalcitrant, it’s sure to spark plenty of debate, but also resonate with anyone who has seen their life (or, indeed, the life of someone they love) changed forever by rape,” wrote film critic Hannah Woodhead.

Others, including the Hollywood News reviewer, have been less convinced by Mulligan as a malignant siren but are still intrigued by Fennell’s film. “Like everything here,” the magazine declared, “[Mulligan’s] turn is skilful, entertaining and challenging, even when the eccentric method obscures the precise message.”

So what exactly is this first time director’s message? Well, it is clear Fennell loves to shock. That was an essential for the Killing Eve job, but also evident in the series of scary books she has written for children, starting with the spooky Shiverton Hall in 2013, and then in the mordant grimness of her 2015 novel Monsters, set in Cornwall. This adult book tells of two odd children who encounter a smattering of murders in beautiful Fowey. The acclaimed writer William Boyd was impressed when he reviewed if for the New Statesman. “Emerald Fennell’s Monsters is a tremendous, destabilising work of fiction, infusing the mundane with eerie and unsettling darkness it is written, moreover, in a remarkable tone of voice,” he wrote.

Yet in person Fennell’s jolly manner and upper crust vowels, to say nothing of her close association with Call the Midwife, might also qualify her as a favourite for the title of “the next Miranda Hart”.

And, rather like Hart, Fennell has been tweeting during the current lockdown in an attempt to distract and amuse her followers. Back in her family home, the entertainment has fairly been thin on the ground, she has suggested. A selection of gratuitous eBay purchases have sent her falling back on her lurid teenage library of romances and ghost stories.

Last week, on “Day 3 of self-isolation” in her childhood bedroom she wondered: “Is this how our civilisation ends? Wearing moisturiser that expired in 2008, the dregs of a bottle of Gucci Envy and fcuk t-shirt?”

Fennell comes from a family she once colourfully described as full of wizards and circus performers but the financial anchor is father Theo Fennell, a multi-millionaire jeweller and maker of prestigious trophies, such as those handed out to Lewis Hamilton on the Formula One podium.

The world inhabited by Camilla Parker Bowles, née Shand, may not be Fennell’s own, but it is probably closer than that of the midwife Patsy she played in Call the Midwife. She has spoken in the past of adoring the chance to work with the young babies who were cast as the newborns in the series.

The actress-writer-turned-director is also a huge fan of Roald Dahl’s work, so let’s hope there are a several volumes there still to divert her in her old bedroom tonight. Failing that, Fennell can perhaps download a few Britney songs to listen to. She is a devoted admirer of the performer and remembers crying with emotion as a young girl when the star burst onto the scene in sequins and spangles.