Carey Mulligan Could Make an Oscars Comeback With ‘Promising Young Woman’

Is the Emerald Fennell debut a stronger awards contender almost a year after debuting at Sundance?

Carey Mulligan stars as "Cassandra" in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Over a decade later, Carey Mulligan may finally be able to return to an Oscars ceremony as a nominee with “Promising Young Woman.”

In 2009, the London-born performer delivered her breakout role in Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” and mustered an Oscar nomination for best actress. Since then, she’s been caught in what I call “one-nomination purgatory” – a place where talented actors are held and, despite awards-worthy turns, can’t muster enough buzz to nab their second nomination. Since 2010, she’s missed out on mentions for “Shame,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Wildlife,” garnering outstanding reviews but coming up short. Could this finally be her invitation back? The reception and reviews so far indicate it could be.

As Cassandra Thomas, a smart and cunning woman righting the wrongs of her past, the 35-year-old is sensationally equipped and compelling in delivering one of her strongest turns yet. The film and performance check a few boxes that past nominees and winners have touched upon from a narrative perspective. In the female-driven revenge thriller saga, Oscar has passed on many before. Actresses like Uma Thurman (“Kill Bill Vol. 2”), Elliot Page (“Hard Candy”) and Jodie Foster (“The Brave One”) all failed on their run-up to their respective ceremonies. On the other hand, they have a track record of accepting them as well like Glenn Close (“Fatal Attraction”), Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”). With these new and open AMPAS members, they could be more receptive to the film and Mulligan’s central performance.

The confidence that Focus Features puts into their awards vehicles has always been one to admire, and what they’re communicating with “Promising Young Woman”: come hell or high water, Emerald Fennell’s direction, and cinematic merits should be a part of the Oscars conversation. Film Twitter and the casual movie-goers are one crowd, but Academy voters are another.

With streamers dominating this year, Focus Features may be one of the top contenders to make headway in the best picture race, if enough welcome its difficult subject. Sexual assault and violence against women are nothing to take lightly, but Fennell balances her film with a darkly comical undertone that allows it to be vividly enjoyable. Not sure if this will be widely accepted as it stands. The movie’s ending is very controversial, but the response has been enthusiastically positive thus far, given the film began its journey nearly a year ago at Sundance. It will remain in the awards discussion for major nominations like best picture, director, original screenplay and actress. I’d go as far as to say that Fennell herself could be one of the frontrunners for the DGA awards for best first feature, an award that honored its first woman last year (Alma Ha’rel for “Honey Boy”).

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Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit : Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features
Merie Weismiller Wallace; SMPSP

With still more than three months until the Academy Awards announce their nominees, looking down the barrel of a race that could end up becoming Netflix vs. [insert another studio], Mulligan has the goods to garner a lot of critical support, which could bleed over to the Oscars sensibilities. Netflix has a half dozen women in the conversation, including Viola Davis (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) and perhaps even Zendaya (“Malcolm and Marie”), creating a dominating presence in the category. Oftentimes, the race takes shape and shifts when the televised shows start, or the critics begin a rallying cry that brings a contender all the way to the Dolby.

A talented cast surrounds Mulligan, but it’ll difficult for any of them to make headway in their categories. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve come back to Bo Burnham when thinking of my personal favorite supporting actor performances of the year. It’s a turn that you shouldn’t dismiss so easily. Laverne Cox and Molly Shannon both offer one-scene whoppers but don’t have much momentum on their sides.

The bold color usage may bring attention to cinematographer Benjamin Kracun and editor Frédéric Thoraval. The “Nurse” may be a new Halloween staple after the country at large sees the movie and costume designer Nancy Steiner may be one of the contemporary films in the running.

“Promising Young Woman” will open in theaters on Dec. 25.

Visit THE AWARDS HUB to see the full list of contenders by category.

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