Starring the stellar Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi, writer/director Emerald Fennell's first film after winning an Oscar for 'Promising Young Woman' is a deliciously devilish delight.
Sarah Ward
November 15, 2023


Sharp, savage and skewering, plus twisted in narrative and the incisive use of genre tropes alike: as a filmmaker, Emerald Fennell certainly has a type. With the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman and now Saltburn, the Barbie and The Crown actor-turned-writer/director takes aim, blazes away giddily and blasts apart everything that she can. When she made a blisteringly memorable feature debut behind the lens — giving audiences one of 2021's's best Down Under releases, in fact, and deservingly earning a place among the Academy Awards' rare female Best Director nominees in the process — she honed in on the absolute worst that a patriarchal society affords women. Now, after also pointing out the protection provided to the wealthy in that first effort as a helmer, Fennell has class warfare so firmly in her gaze that Saltburn is named after a sprawling English manor. With both flicks, the end result is daringly unforgettable. This pair of pictures would make a killer double, too, although they enjoy neighbouring estates rather than frolic across the same exact turf.

On her leaps from one side of the camera to the other, Fennell also keeps filling her features with such spectacular casts that other filmmakers might hope to fall into her good graces to bask in their glow — a fate that sits at the heart of Saltburn, albeit beyond the movie world. Fresh from nabbing his own Oscar nomination for The Banshees of Inisherin, Barry Keoghan adds yet another beguiling and astonishing performance to a resume that's virtually collecting them (see also: The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk, American Animals, The Green Knight and Calm with Horses), proving mesmerisingly slippery as scholarship student Oliver Quick. Usually standing in his sights, Euphoria's Jacob Elordi perfects the part of Felix Catton, aka that effortlessly charismatic friend that everyone wishes they could spend all of their time with. And as Felix's mother Elspeth, father Sir James and "poor dear" family pal Pamela, Rosamund Pike (The Wheel of Time), Richard E Grant (Persuasion) and Carey Mulligan (Fennell's Promising Young Woman star, also an Academy Award nominee for her work) couldn't give more delicious line readings or portraits of the insular but shambolic well-to-do.

Saltburn's first stomping ground is Oxford University, as is Oliver's as well, not that he's initially able to make the most of it. Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren — who shot this after Babylon, going all-in on decadence and its dark side on back-to-back projects — spy the careful look on the film's protagonist's face as he enters the revered college among the class of 2006, and also see how he stands out from his moneyed peers. Felix isn't merely at the centre of the in-crowd; not just because his blue blood may is pure sapphire, he's the sun that everything revolves around. When a bicycle mishap threatens to make him late for class but Oliver is on-hand to assist, Felix also shines his light on his working-class outsider schoolmate. At the end of term, to save his new loyal offsider from a fraught homecoming and to treat him to a heady summer dream instead, he then extends a sympathetic invitation to while away the break with the full Catton clan at their palatial property. 

Cue Brideshead Revisited by way of The Talented Mr Ripley, Cruel Intentions, gothic thrillers and Fennell-esque flair, as set in the mid-00s and graced with a superlative soundtrack from the era to go with it — a wickedly entertaining and delightful blend. Butler Duncan (Paul Rhys, A Discovery of Witches) might be stern and strict rather than welcoming when Oliver decamps to their stately surroundings, but Elspeth and Sir James are as obliging as they are eccentric (one of the family matriarch's best moments, and Pike's as her, involves sharing a tidbit about her role in potentially inspiring Pulp's 'Common People'). Amid the group's nightly black-tie meals ("we dress for dinner here," Felix advises), leisurely sunshiny days, swish soirées, oozing lust and the kind of hallucinatory blowouts that you can only have if you're basically corrupting Downton Abbey, fellow Oxford student and Catton cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story) sits in the competitively icy camp about Oliver's arrival. Sharing the next generation's seductive vibe, Felix's sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, Conversations with Friends) is warmer, but with a seen-this-before air about her sibling's new bestie (or, in her eyes, plaything).

As the name of a grand country tract where cashed-up privilege is so flavoursome that it leaves a mark, Saltburn is a brilliant choice. As the moniker for a bitingly piquant movie, it similarly couldn't be more gloriously on-target. This is a spicy and sweltering film again and again: in its cast, farce, luxuriousness, confidence, horrors, bodily fluids, pitch-perfect portrayals, devil-may-care protagonist, blooming sense of mischief, intoxicatingly opulent look, and deeply committed boldness to dig in and tear down. That secrets and lies line the walls of the eponymous property, gathering far less dust than the well-appointed library that no one appears to use — scary flicks are the Cattons' communal pastime of choice, aptly — isn't at all surprising. That eat-the-rich brutality awaits resides in the same category. But Saltburn never stops enticing jaws to the floor, then sticking them there with sweat, blood and more, as it murders a dance floor filled with posh entitlement, yearning desire, and the impulsiveness of the young and the affluent.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor's best-known tune does indeed get a spin, alongside expertly deployed tracks by Bloc Party and MGMT. For the second time in as many movies, Fennell knows how to nail not only a meticulously matched playlist but the precise mood. That she could've been one of Oliver and Felix's Oxford peers given that she was also studying at the prestigious university when the feature is set helps every detail gleam, including the mid-00s fashions. Crucially, though, Fennell never forgets that her film is showing to today's audiences, not to newly minted adults nearly two decades back (or anyone transported so evocatively to the past by this film that it feels like they've never left). Whether or not Elordi boasted such a pivotal role, Euphoria is unmistakably one of Saltburn's visual touchstones. With its swooning and sultriness — and scorching obsession as well — so is Call Me By Your Name.

As much as it revels in the alluring, and torridly, Saltburn is fearlessly and devilishly about tarnishing not gloss. In the pursuit of love, comfort, belonging and revenge, nothing glitters within its chandelier-lit story that can't be shattered and smeared — that doesn't deserved to be cracked and crumbled, either — even when the movie's namesake place appears to host the most carefree of times. With boxed-in frames and looking-back narration as a framing device, the film purposefully unspools as a provocative fantasy and an unreliable memory combined, as the tales we all tell ourselves about our lives in our deepest, darkest, most closely held thoughts and feelings always do. As anchored exquisitely by the enigmatic Keoghan in entertaining everyman mode, it's no wonder that Saltburn feels so potent, so haunting, so visceral, and so attuned to vulnerability and viciousness in equal doses: it's the reverie and nightmare beating inside us all with infatuating abandon if we'd let it.


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