In her eagerly anticipated second feature after the acclaimed Promising Young Woman, Academy Award-winning actress and filmmaker Emerald Fennell is back with her new film Saltburn. Starring an ensemble cast, the film follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) finds himself drawn into the world of Felix Catton (Priscilla‘s Jacob Elordi), who invites him to his family estate, Saltburn, for the summer.
Set in 2006, Saltburn starts off at Oxford University, where newcomer Oliver is treated as a weirdo and struggles to bond with anyone, except for intense maths student Michael (Ewan Mitchell). From afar, he watches Felix’s easygoing popularity (especially with the ladies) and confidence charm everyone around him, and they slowly become firm friends. However, it is not until Oliver is invited to Saltburn, a huge estate in the English countryside, does he begin to come out of his shell – and into a vast playground for the rich and the privileged.
The first half of Saltburn sees Oliver as an almost pitiful character. His peers look down on him due to his Northern background and lack of title, fortune or general charm, so it is easy to see how he becomes intrigued by the ever-popular Felix. When a chance meeting over a flat bike tyre allows their paths to cross, they form a kinship that doesn’t go unnoticed by their snobbish peers and raises questions to whether their bond is real, especially when Oliver gets on the wrong side of his classmate and Felix’s cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). While the film navigates their antics at university, Fennell takes her time to develop their friendship as the core of her twisted drama while establishing an aura of classism and decadence that only grows when Oliver (and audiences) arrives at the eponymous estate.
When Oliver experiences a personal tragedy, it allows him to further integrate himself into Felix’s life. At first glance, he comes across as a “charity case” for the Cattons – with more money than morals, his family, which includes cacophobic mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and flirty sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), spend their time throwing lavish parties or lazing around in the sun with no issues about letting Oliver stay for the summer. However, they are seemingly so out of touch with reality that their indifference about death and tragedy becomes trivial gossip, highlighting their cold and dispassionate nature. Some might see the Cattons’ upper-class narcissism infecting Oliver’s innocent nature but as the film goes on, culminating at a lavish birthday party that only highlights his insignificance, the growing aura of resentment emanating from the protagonist’s increasingly disturbing actions turns the narrative towards a compelling and unexpected direction.
Similar to Promising Young Woman, Fennell’s dialogue ranges from the provocatively self-absorbed to the unforgivingly vicious, especially when the characters’ charming facades begin to slip to show their true faces. As for the cast, Keoghan’s physicality and on-screen intensity allows the audience to see his perspective on an otherwise inaccessible world, with his chilling delivery highlighting an emotively multi-layered performance. Amid his narration at the beginning of Saltburn, Oliver states that he loved Felix yet questions whether he was in love with him. So when Elordi portrays a sun-kissed thirst trap who weaponises his appearance, his feelings are easily open to debate. When it comes to supporting performances, Pike and Mulligan shine as bougie aristocrats whose unfiltered banter emphasises the film’s dry and darkly comedic nature.
For her second film, Fennell ups her game through her thoughtful and provocative direction. The smaller aspect ratio brings a modern feel to her tale, especially as she accommodates an Instagram filtered-aesthetic that will appeal to millennial audiences. She also allows clever imagery and sweeping visuals to emphasise the scale of her vast settings and the duplicity of her characters while Linus Sandgren’s and occasionally modern Gothic cinematography transforms a life of decadence and debauchery into a vehicle for envy and embitterment. The end result sees Fennell (and everyone involved) push their creative boundaries to deliver a sensually disturbing yet utterly absorbing watch.
This review is from the BFI London Film Festival 2023. Saltburn is scheduled for a UK release on 17 November 2023.
Director: Emerald Fennell
Stars: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E Grant, Carey Mulligan
Runtime: 131 minutes
Country: USA, UK