An Oxford University student finds himself drawn into the world of a charming classmate, who invites him to his family's sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.
Saltburn, the sophomore film from Emerald Fennell, following her Academy Award-winning Promising Young Woman (2020), approaches the darkness of humanity that shows her command of the screen, but her grip on the thematic material falters in her screenplay.
Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a newcomer to Oxford University, finds himself an outsider, battling to forge friendships and feel recognised among his more affluent peers. Then, one fateful day, Oliver crosses paths with his charismatic classmate, Felix (Jacob Elordi), who’s stranded in the park with a flat tire. Oliver generously offers Felix his bicycle to allow him to get to class. When Felix later reciprocates at the pub that evening, Oliver becomes captivated by Felix and spends all his time with him. Upon revealing the passing of his alcoholic father, Felix extends an invitation to Oliver to spend the summer at Saltburn, his family’s extravagant and expansive estate.
Arriving at the estate, Oliver meets Felix’s parents, Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant) and Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike), along with Elspeth’s melancholic friend, Pamela (Carey Mulligan), and Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver). Each individual possesses unique eccentricities, further widening the gulf between Oliver and this world of extravagance, gossip, and ostentatiousness. Despite this, he manages to ingratiate himself into their favour, much to the displeasure of Felix’s best friend and unofficially adopted brother, Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe). Oliver finally has the attention he yearns for, but it never feels entirely comfortable, as Fennell subtly alludes to a more sinister force lurking beneath the surface at Saltburn.
Emerald Fennell demonstrates her command as a director and her self-assurance in her follow-up to her film exploring gender roles and revenge. In Saltburn, she paints a picture of obsession and extravagance. Through the skilful use of fractured mirrors and shifting neon lights, she expertly captures the essence of her characters. She’s also interested in the humour of her story; as Oliver navigates the enormous estate, bewildered by the ostentatious display of wealth, he finds himself in a compact room occupied by the Catton family watching Superbad (2006).
Fennell strikes a captivating balance in tone, effortlessly transitioning from witty dialogue to richly composed shots, notably the scene of Oliver lying on the ground, his image mirrored in the estate’s tranquil pond Visually, Saltburn is astounding and Fennell knows how to move the camera to make everything feel so grand and yet so intimate, which really falls on the performance of the film’s two main actors.
Since The Killing of the Sacred Deer (2017), Barry Keoghan has cornered the market on “weird little dude” castings. His recent performance in Martin McDonogh’s The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) earned him his first Academy Award nomination, and his portrayal of Oliver could very well secure him a second. Throughout Saltburn, Oliver is duplicitous, hiding true intentions and feelings that remain clouded as he manoeuvres his way into the luxurious world of Felix. His obsession with Felix is unnerving, yet understandable given the loneliness that permeates the film’s first act. Keoghan’s performance is imbued with such conviction that it becomes challenging to either root for or condemn Oliver simultaneously.
Elordi’s portrayal of Felix harmonizes beautifully with Keoghan’s performance as Oliver. Exuding an effortless charm and an ostensible sense of entitlement, Felix embodies everything that Oliver isn’t. While his privilege and lavishness is off-putting, Elordi infuses Felix with such dynamism that he becomes unexpectedly endearing, capable of genuine acts of compassion that are both shocking and endearing. Their relationship never quite feels “normal”, but the actors work so well on screen together that it’s easy to root for their friendship.
Transcending the performances, Saltburn is an engrossing film, finding specificity through 2006 music to fit its time frame, yet otherworldly in its setting. It moves from humorous interactions around the grand dining room to some of the most shocking moments conceived on film this year. The juxtaposition between humour and grotesqueness only heightens our investment in the film’s trajectory.
However, as the film progresses into its final act, it succumbs to its own grandiosity. The continual barrage of surprising twists undermines the thematic development so diligently crafted earlier. Unlike Fennell’s debut feature, Promising Young Woman, which maintains a cohesive thematic evolution throughout its runtime, Saltburn appears torn between its aspirations of being a psychological drama, a black comedy, or a profound societal critique. While it attempts to encompass all three elements, it ultimately fails to stick the landing.
While Saltburn may not be groundbreaking in its exploration of human emotions and class, it’s undoubtedly an enjoyable ride, best seen on the big screen. With some of its most shocking and horrific visuals alongside hysterical characters, it’s guaranteed to spark conversation. And as Fennell told Deadline, “Not everyone will get it. Not everyone will find it sexy, not everyone will find it funny… It’s a rich stew. And obviously, if you’re going to serve up a rich stew, some people are going to swallow it and some people won’t want to.” Saltburn serves up plenty and more for an intriguing ticket to the movies.
USA • UK | 2023 | 131 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writers & director: Emerald Fennell.
starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe & Carey Mulligan.