Mulligan and Mulligan: “Promising Young Woman” and “The Dig”

This has been a good few weeks if you appreciate Carey Mulligan’s screen work, as her considerable talents are on display in the new releases “Promising Young Woman” and “The Dig.” 

Both films not only provide fine showcases for her abilities, but are also intelligent, satisfying entertainments in their own right. The one that is gathering the most buzz is “Promising Young Woman,” and it’s partly because of Mulligan’s work in an atypical role; it’s also because of the timely subject matter and the fact that it’s the debut writing/directorial effort from Emerald Fennell, whom some viewers might remember from her turn as Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown” (though others might recall her as a lovelorn midwife in “Call the Midwife”).

The premise of “Promising Young Woman” concerns Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, a once-promising medical student who had dropped out to care for her now-deceased best friend Nina, who had been raped by their classmate (and subsequently escaped punishment). Cassie now works in a coffee shop by day, but on occasional evenings, she goes to clubs and feigns drunkenness in order to entrap/humiliate the unwitting predators who would take advantage. Though at first it seems like it might evolve into an ordinary revenge tale, Fennell’s script takes Mulligan’s Cassie through some unexpected twists, including an encounter with a likable, sincere ex-classmate (Bo Burnham) that might lead to something more; a few reckonings that lead her to question the motives and define her own morality—and a late discovery that threatens to upend everything.

Fennell’s script is fairly ambitious in that it is not content to be a mere revenge saga (albeit with dark humor), but it explores the motivations and rationalizations of those who either stood by when a sexual assault occurred, sought ways to distance themselves after—or assisted in the subsequent cover-up. Many of the characters are not stereotypical villains (well, maybe one is), but individuals who believe they can get past the unseen event at the core of the film by either burying it or ignoring the fact that it happened. There are some quietly powerful scenes when Cassie forces these individuals to confront the enormity of their actions—and where Mulligan excels is retaining the viewer’s sympathy even when moving in dangerous, morally uncharted waters. One scene with Cassie and Connie Britton’s Dean crackles with tension and ambivalence—but it’s one of many in a film that takes a provocative premise and provides some jolts along the way. Though Mulligan is superlative throughout in suggesting Cassie’s mixture of assurance, anguish and malaise, she is not alone: Alison Brie, Alfred Molina and Molly Shannon all contribute nicely etched performances in a movie that might earn some notice at Oscar time.

While it isn’t nearly as provocative as “Promising Young Woman,” Mulligan’s other new release, “The Dig,” directed by Simon Stone from a script by Moira Buffini (in turn based on John Preston’s book) is a beautifully made, old-fashioned (in the best sense of the word), well-acted, period drama (based on real-life events) with a great deal to say about love, responsibility, service, mortality, and immortality. The year is 1939, Britain is thisclose to war, and determined but ailing widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hires Ralph Fiennes’ self-taught excavator Basil Brown to “dig up” certain burial mounds on her country estate to see what might be there. Their small-scale efforts attract the attention of representatives from the British Museum, and though they “take over” the effort, Brown is retained—and their discovery is much bigger and more valuable than anticipated. This leads to the question of what to do with the treasures—and how safe they would be in an England on the verge of war.

Though there is a lot of digging in the film (apropos of the title), it is the human element that compels the viewer’s attention and makes “The Dig” another film that should not escape notice come Oscar-time. Carey Mulligan’s dignified widow radiates warmth, integrity, vulnerability and grit; the wonder of her performance is she manages to subtly inject these dimensions throughout. Perhaps the most telling is when she is expecting someone for dinner and he can’t attend—the reaction seamlessly proceeds from one level to another, without calling attention to itself. Mulligan’s work is flawlessly layered throughout, not only in her many scenes with Fiennes’ Brown (who matches her and is also quietly superb throughout), but also her moments with Lily James’ Peggy, who is working on “the dig” but has some life issues of her own (concerning her relationship with beau Ben Chaplin). “The Dig” is a rewarding, poignant film and can be seen on Netflix. Give it a try.

Mike Peros
Author: Mike Peros

Mike Peros is an author whose new book, JOSE FERRER: SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL, the first biography of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi, while his previous book, DAN DURYEA: HEEL WITH A HEART is now available in paperback.