Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell | 127 min | ▲▲▲▲△
Best Original Screenplay Oscar-winner Emerald Fennell made a big splash with Promising Young Woman, has written and directed a follow-up that disguises its genre for much of its running time in a series of narrative lock boxes and red herrings. Is it a romance? A gothic horror? An erotic thriller? A coming-of-age story? A twisted, dark comedy sticking all these elements in a satiric blender without committing to just one? That’s the one.
It’s also a platform for Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nominee Barry Keoghan to show off what he can do as a lead.
He’s Oliver Quick, a keener who got a scholarship to Oxford and, working his ass off, found himself very much the outsider in a student body of silver spooners who cruise through life. All he wants is to be part of the privileged crowd and abandons a fellow northern dweeb to party with the rich kids, finding a friend in Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, recently tall and stiff as Elvis in Priscilla), whose charms seem irresistible to everyone around him. After a rapid school year in film time, Oliver has nowhere to go — he’s come from a rough home life in the north, tales of addiction and mental health, and all he wants to do is escape. Felix suggests he come home with him for the summer hols.
The Catton estate — a countryside castle, really — is called Saltburn. Felix’s parents are the ridiculously idle wealthy, Elspeth and Sir James (Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant). Also hanging around are sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), acidic cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), also at Oxford and no fan of Oliver, and fellow hard times rescuee Poor Dear Pamela (Carey Mulligan), who’s clearly overstayed her welcome. Oliver will have to find a way to remain in the Catton’s good books.
Structurally, Fennell is inspired by cinematic and literary roots Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr Ripley/Purple Noon, but otherwise Saltburn is entirely its own beast, a period piece (yes, 2006 is now period) told through the perspective of unreliable Oliver, observing and coveting the deeply dysfunctional Cotton clan and their golden boy, Felix.
Keoghan walks a fine line between dangerous, opaque, and needy. It’s a terrific performance — physically he doesn’t change much from role to role, he hunches his shoulders and sidles along, almost turning away from his close-ups, eyes hooded like Charlotte Rampling’s, but he’s electric. Elordi is a lot more free and attractive a screen presence than his Elvis — it’s easy to see why Oliver is fascinated. This while the wondrous Pike devours every scene she’s in, and though I wished Grant had more to do — The Lesson remains his 2023 rakish rich guy high point — he delivers my favourite line reading in the whole movie: “Do you know him?”
All of this makes for a delicious juxtaposition of British class and horror. Fennell is fully formed as a visual storyteller, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land) on board, we get to luxuriate in the deep colours and vertiginous camera angles — the universe of Saltburn is a wildly appealing, sensual place to hang for a couple of hours.
However, the screenplay from the Oscar winner it’s not quite as cohesive or as gripping as Promising Young Woman. The picture has narrative lulls that could’ve been excised with a couple extra drafts or maybe in the editing, and the emotional high point of the Oliver/Felix relationship comes a good 25 minutes before the end of the movie, rendering everything that happens after that either outrageous or anticlimactic — including an otherwise delightful au naturel solo dance number.
Still, in the cinema this is seriously entertaining stuff, maybe more so if you’re a committed anglophile — there’s something both perversely and seductively English about the film’s obsessions with style, status, and sex.