Dennis Harvey, the veteran film critic whose review of Promising Young Woman has sparked a furore across the industry, has hit back at accusations of misogyny amid calls for Variety to fire him.
Harvey’s review was published more than a year ago, following the film’s premiere at the Sundance film festival. Largely positive, it called Mulligan’s performance “skilful, entertaining and challenging” while also querying the central casting. While “a fine actress”, wrote Harvey, Mulligan “seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale”.
Discussing the character’s deliberate artifice in more depth, Harvey noted that “Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her. Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.”
Mulligan objected to the review, telling the New York Times in December: “I felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse.
“It drove me so crazy … I was like, ‘Really? For this film, you’re going to write something that is so transparent? Now? In 2020?’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
Variety responded by adding an editor’s note at the top of Harvey’s review, apologising for “insensitive language” but leaving his words intact.
Mulligan reiterated her discomfort at the review earlier this week in a video interview hosted by Variety, prompting renewed abuse of the critic on social media.
Speaking to the Guardian, Harvey said he was ill at ease with the way in which Mulligan’s words to the New York Times describing her anger at the review had become received wisdom as to what his review actually said. “I did not say or even mean to imply Mulligan is ‘not hot enough’ for the role,” Harvey said.
“I’m a 60-year-old gay man. I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotnesses of young actresses, let alone writing about that.”
Harvey added that he had been “appalled to be tarred as misogynist, which is something very alien to my personal beliefs or politics. This whole thing could not be more horrifying to me than if someone had claimed I was a gung-ho Trump supporter.”
Harvey said he avoided the social media discourse triggered by the fallout on the advice of friends who said nobody commenting appeared to have read the review and that some people had said “I must be advocating rape, was probably a predator like the men in the film”.
“What I was attempting to write about was the emphasis in the film and [Mulligan’s] performance on disguise, role-playing and deliberate narrative misdirection. Nor was bringing up Margot Robbie meant to be any comparison in ‘personal appearance’.
“Robbie is a producer on the film, and I mentioned her just to underline how casting contributes to the film’s subversive content – a star associated with a character like Harley Quinn [Robbie’s Suicide Squad character] might raise very specific expectations, but Mulligan is a chameleon and her very stylised performance keeps the viewer uncertain where the story is heading.”
Harvey conceded he may not have expressed such a sentiment specifically enough in his review, but said that he was driven by a desire to withhold the plot’s twists and turns from the audience.
“I assumed that film-makers who created such a complex, layered movie wouldn’t interpret what I wrote as some kind of simpleminded sexism. And while Carey Mulligan is certainly entitled to interpret the review however she likes, her projection of it suggesting she’s ‘not hot enough’ is, to me, just bizarre. I’m sorry she feels that way. But I’m also sorry that’s a conclusion she would jump to, because it’s quite a leap.”
Mulligan’s publicists have not yet responded to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Harvey also highlighted the discrepancy between the reaction of the film’s star and its US distributor, who “immediately asked permission to use multiple pullquotes from the review in their marketing a year ago”.
He also queried the timing of the controversy, noting that his review had apparently been found unobjectionable enough to escape complaint for 11 months, “until the film was finally being released, promoted and Oscar-campaigned”. Only then was his review “belatedly labelled ‘insensitive’ and flagged with an official ‘apology’”.
Variety’s editors had not raised any concerns with the review when he first filed it, said Harvey, nor in subsequent months until the New York Times article.
His professional fate remains uncertain. “It’s left in question whether after 30 years of writing for Variety I will now be sacked because of review content no one found offensive until it became fodder for a viral trend piece.”