Writer/director Emerald Fennell broke into filmmaking with the divisive and much-discussed Promising Young Woman in 2020. It was a dark, amusing and uncomfortable triumph for revenge thrillers and post-#MeToo dramas, revealing an audacious new voice in cinema.
Fennell transplants many of those qualities to her new project Saltburn, a second feature that not only matches her film debut but outgrows it. Returning to the shores of Great Britain, she tells a strange, gothic tale of extreme social climbing that straddles the funny, the satirical, the disturbing and the kinky.
Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick. Photo: MGM/Amazon
Barry Keoghan wields a gripping, mysterious face as the lead character Oliver Quick, in the Oxford University Class of '06. At first, he's shy, alienated from the aristocratic elite. Voyeuristically, he stares at them from afar but doesn’t engage. Even his lecturer (Reece Shearsmith) dislikes him because he has no nepotistic advantages. As the film continues, the contradictions start to flow: Oliver is awkward but firm; innocent yet duplicitous; humble and desirous; virginal and sexually assertive.
Although Keoghan has decent range (proven by his Oscar-nominated role in The Banshees of Inisherin), he’s at his most magnetic as an elusive, ethereal deceiver. Fennell reportedly cast him after seeing his performance in Yorgos Lanthimos’ oddball film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Saltburn seems at least partially inspired by the Greek Weird Wave filmmaker.
Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton. Photo: MGM/Amazon
Well-acquainted with over-privileged white men after Euphoria and Priscilla, Jacob Elordi plays the rich and popular student Felix Catton. He takes a shine to Oliver and Oliver idolises him. Wanting to cheer him up after tragic news, he invites Oliver to his vast country estate, Saltburn, for the summer.
The real house in
Northamptonshire has never been featured in a film before and might never be again,
infusing the 14th-century palatial abode with an eerie pungency:
this is a place you’re not allowed to see. The authoritarian butler Duncan (Paul Rhys) and the
Steadicam tour of the place provide a ghostly ambience, similar to The Shining.
More than the aged surroundings, it’s the affluent residents that give you the creeps. Rosamund Pike is perfect as matriarch Elspeth, starring alongside a brilliantly eccentric (if underused) Richard E Grant as the father Sir James and Conversations With Friends star Alison Oliver as their horny bulimic daughter Venetia. Archie Madekwe (Midsommar) also appears from the start as Oliver’s academic rival Farleigh, a detestable Catton relative who’s paraded as evidence of the family's morality.
Fennell draws her characters so vividly, to the extent that you’re excited to see any of them enter the film’s grand and narrow 1.33 frame. Even brief appearances from Carey Mulligan and Lovesick actor Joshua McGuire stick in the mind.
But this is Oliver’s twisted story. Each of his interactions with these pompous, entitled family members reveals something different, something surprising. An early shot of Oliver splits his reflection into multiple faces and, rather than following the story to unlock the character, Fennell keeps separating and reattaching the puzzle pieces of Oliver’s fractured self. Even the unforgettable final scene, tailored to a song by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, maintains an ecstatic frisson of doubt. The only consistency is his motivation to succeed in this opulent environment, one smothered in hilarious, frightening artifice.
Saltburn is a bleakly comic, transgressively erotic, and unabashedly bizarre take on British class consciousness – perfected via the weird, mythical cinematography by Linus Sandgren (Babylon). Fennell pushes what lengths people will go to gain and maintain their peaks of wealth, leaving little room for delicate, ‘American’ emotions. Saltburn is no pale sophomore slump: it’s a detailed, superior mansion in which you lose yourself.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2023. Saltburn will be in UK cinemas on Friday 17 November.
17 Nov 23 – 17 Nov 24, IN CINEMAS
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