Saltburn is a deliciously depraved tale of lust, obsession and manipulation
After Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut promising young woman stunned audiences and won her a best screenplay Oscar in 2020, her follow up effort as both writer and director, Saltburn, has naturally become one of the most anticipated films of 2023.
Barry Keoghan (Killing of a Sacred Deer, Banshees of Inisherin) stars as Oliver, a young scholarship student at 2006 Oxford University. With his impoverished background and lack of private schooling Oliver is struggling to make friends with the moneyed teenagers he must now calls peers. Oliver is immediately drawn to handsome young aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi – Euphoria, Priscilla) who is the magnetic heart at the centre of all college life. After a chance encounter the two strike up an unlikely friendship and Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his imposing country estate Saltburn.
A true fish out of water amongst all the luxury excess, Oliver must navigate his way around the rest of Felix’s eccentric family. There’s vanity obsessed mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike,) Lord of the manor father Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and overlooked sister Venetia (Alison Oliver.) The only one who seems suspicious of Oliver being there in the first place is Felix’s American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) who wastes no time making it clear that Oliver doesn’t belong among these people.
There are echoes of Brideshead Revisited and Atonement and The Great Gatsby and all those iconic stories about obscene wealth being seen through the eyes of a normal person, but Fennell reframes the story for the Skins generation. The lavish parties are soundtracked by Bloc Party, The Killers and most bizarrely – The Cheeky Girls. The teens are obsessed with the last Harry Potter book all summer and you get the delightfully absurd scene of Richard E. Grant watching Superbad. It’s wonderfully nostalgic for people of a certain generation – namely my own.
Fennell applies her famed caustic wit to the story, loading up nearly every character with impossibly funny dialogue – there’s no filler here. Rosamund Pike absolutely steals every scene she is in, having the ability to switch between heaping praise on her dearest friends and absolutely tearing them apart in the same breath. It’s a noticeable skill that only the upper classes seem to have.
A potent air of lust saturates the whole film as from the very outset we are led to look closer at the true nature of Oliver’s interest in Felix and his intentions towards the wider family. It takes us to some very dark, depraved places. Some will no doubt be put off, but I was impressed by the sheer audaciousness of what is being shown on screen in a big budget, wide releasing movie.
Elordi is a revelation as Felix. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren lights him like a literal work of art throughout, and with his ability to look at other characters like they are the only and most important person in the world, it’s easy to become just an entranced with him as Oliver does. Keoghan for his part is absolutely fearless, selling his most unhinged, disgusting acts with absolute abandon. Rapidly making a name for himself with these extreme characters, no one else does it quite like him.
Whilst there are some big twists and turns in Saltburn, it has nothing near the bombshell surprises of Promising Young Woman. There’s a certain inevitability to everything that happens, and whilst you might not guess how we get there, you’ll no doubt figure out what’s about to happen by about halfway through the film. It feels intentional and not necessarily to its detriment through, as Oliver tells us near the end ‘’I don’t need to tell you what happened. You already know.’’
Whilst it might have an air of ‘’eat the rich’’ to it as we are expected to side with Oliver in being shocked and horrified by the behaviour of the toffs, Fennel is far too soft on upper classes to really evoke that feeling. Felix for one actually seems to be a genuinely kind person, and the rest of the Catton’s are simply far too entertaining for us to have much ill will towards them. Whilst the sex, drugs and rock n roll of it all might be quite extreme, the political commentary really isn’t, and I felt quite sympathetic to the beleaguered rich people by the end.
Still, Saltburn is an obscene amount of fun to have in the cinema. Fennell’s sharp script and Sandgren’s gorgeous cinematography come together to create a film that’s both stylish and satisfying. The characters are ridiculous yet memorable, and the twists and turns that take Oliver to his final destination are both enormously entertaining and delightfully dark. Saltburn as a whole package is absolutely intoxicating.
Saltburn is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is released in UK cinemas on 17th November 2023
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