PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN**** Delivers on the promise

TO THOSE OF you who get to this fascinating, absolutely riveting movie, I suggest you pay attention to the art direction (if for a moment you can concentrate on anything beyond the jaw dropping B-movie thrill of what’s taking place): from the protagonist’s parent’s kitschy house to her jokily ‘girlie’ coffee shop to a wonderful hippy-esque wedding ceremony…all glossy surface masking so much that remains out of sight.

In one coffee shop scene the camera focuses on the beatific, beautiful, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth face of Cassie (short for, duh, Cassandra). She’s standing in front of some sort of ornate pink circular wall hanging. It frames her to suggest a halo. It’s an ironic icon for this avenging angel of death.

Cassie (Cary Mulligan), traumatised by an incident several years ago, has dropped out of medical school, works as a barista by day and by night pretends to be the uber vulnerable woman: one helplessly drunk in a bar. And thus is she open sesame for any proto-rapist on the prowl. From their, and the society’s perspective, she’s clearly looking for it. Inevitably someone (she’s ‘drunk’ in quite posh bars with posh boys on the make) offers to get her back home safely, then takes her to his apartment and seeks to have his way with her before she passes out. Their shock when she ‘snaps to’ and reveals how deadly sober she is, is a sharp kick in the groin. Her potential assailants veer between shame and outright terror. Who knows what vengeance this angel can wring upon them?

These faux seductions are just the warm-up act for a much more cleverly planned strategy of revenge/exorcism/catharsis on Cassie’s part. Her intent is not simply to seek revenge, a la Arya Stark (remember her list?), it’s to force those who catalysed her initial breakdown into facing up to their crimes, to confronting their demons within, to be exposed to the truth behind their carefully constructed lies and narratives.

And this is the heart of the story (which feels so very current and ‘real’). It’s about the clever narratives people tell themselves to protect themselves from the sins of their past (in this case gang rape): that they were young and didn’t know better, that in the world of “he said, she said” it was always better to protect ambitious young men’s futures (forget about how it may have affected the victims’ futures); that any woman’s sex life is fair game in a court of law; that anyway they’ve become better persons etc.

We construct narratives to fence us in against harm (Banks are forces of good, the US is a bastion of democracy, the UK has overcome systemic racism etc). Cassie is an archetype of the worst nightmare: she’s the arch debunker of myths, the exposer of truths. And once the truth of one’s self is exposed, once the superstructure of wealth and fame and decency has been pulled down, so often there is nothing left (One character in the movie – Alfred Molina- has come to his own self-reckoning before Cassie’s arrival; and he’s a husk of a person)

Well, a woman who, alone, entraps men in isolated bedrooms isn’t going to end well. But this one does, sorta, in a wonderful moment of movie catharsis, of grand operatic cummupance…a joyful, gotcha exclamation point after two hours of edge of seat viewing.

Carey Mulligan, who holds the movie together in every frame, from start to finish, is outstanding, as she always is. She can switch from angel to Devil and all the layers of eschatology that separate them, in a flick of an eye, a curl of a lip. Writer/Director Emerald fennel (who you may recognise from The Crown), gives her tale the over the top jauntiness of a satiric morality story.

She also slyly encourages the viewer to sympathize with some of Carrie’s victims. The question she poses is that perhaps it isn’t just a black and white affair. That the stain of past misdeeds are not permanently etched into the skin. That people can change. That people can emerge from the darkness.

Or can they? Perhaps (to bastardise Macbeth) all great Neptune’s ocean can never ever wash the blood of the past off the hands of the present.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN. Writer/Director: Emerald Fennell. With: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina. Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun (Monsoon). Production Designer: Miahael Perry

HELGOLAND. (A Quantum Primer..sorta)

WHEN HE WAS just 23, Werner Heisenberg (who may or may not have sabotaged the Nazi bomb program…as shown in the OK-ish war movie, The Catcher Was a Spy with Mark Strong as Heisenberg) spent a few solitary days on the windswept island of Helgoland in the North Sea. It was there he figured out a chunk of the mathematics of the quantum universe, and went on to develop his foundational Uncertainty theory.

It’s a pleasant story and there merely to give some sort of dramatic brio to Carlo Rovelli’s new book (after his last, incredibly successful “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”). It seeks to simplify and help our understanding of the deeply weird world of quantum physics.

I use the words “simplify” and “understanding” advisably.

The book’s an easy enough read…relatively easy.  Rovelli makes a superhuman effort to find real world examples to explain quantum phenomena. But (thanks to my analog brain) I found I had to reread multiple paragraphs and chapters multiple times in order to try to rephrase his insights into something I could claim to understand (or at least made sense to me). And on multiple occasions I had to refer to other texts (Manjit Kumar’s book, “Quantum” often offered greater clarification on ideas that remained obstinately opaque).

That said, it’s a rewarding read and a fascinating book.

The book highlights and ‘explains’ the physics that underlies some of the more well known weirdo aspects of the quantum universe: Quantum superposition (where a particle can seem to be in two places at the same time…or, like Schrödinger’s cat is neither dead nor alive) and its twin, Entanglement (where particles separated by vast distances still act in perfect unison). It examines the phenomena (that makes any discussion about this world one of ‘probabilities’ not exactness) whereby the simple act of observing the behaviour of electrons – interference- changes their behaviour (which is why the un-observed cat is in a purgatory of being neither dead nor alive)  And, (back to Helgoland) the mathematics of quantum uncertainty (where you can be precise about the position of an electron or its velocity but not both at the same time; and since elections are in perpetual motion, that’s not very helpful).

At heart, he notes, properties exist only in relation to something else. Don’t think of the world as one of objects but as a weave of relations and interactions. (As a crude example, he cites the blueness of the sky. The sky doesn’t have the property of blueness; that ‘property’ is merely the interaction of the wavelength of light photons interacting with the molecules (themselves the result of the interactions of atoms within which are the interactions within their nuclei etc) that make up my optic nerves that are fed in quanta, or packets, of electric signals to the interacting molecules that light up a region of my brain. And voila: blue! Nothing has intrinsic properties except in relation to other things. No interaction at the quantum level = nothing) 

Rovelli is keen to push the discussion as far as it can go. If, as he asserts, all matter exists only in relation to other matter, is there a Foundational element? The elusive God particle? To answer this he turns to (the suddenly trendy) Bhuddist philosopher, Nagarjuna, who reasoned that nothing exists in itself independently from something else. In other words, at its root, existence is emptiness. The fundamental substance does not exist.

And is it possible to directly correlate the quantum world with the experiential world of thoughts and emotions? To him it is, as he leads the reader down, down into Alice’s looking glass to show the synapses that link the person writing this with the quarks and bosons and fermions at the heart of reality.

Read it and may one of the forces be with you