Saltburn is a dark thriller about obsession, power, privilege, and a desperate desire to belong. It’s a debauched variation on The Talented Mr Ripley meets Brideshead Revisited. This is the sophomore feature from writer/director Emerald Fennell, who won an Oscar for her screenplay for 2020’s Promising Young Woman.
It’s 2006. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a lonely, introverted working-class student who has arrived at Oxford on a scholarship for his first year at the venerable institution. However, he seems a very private person and his background seems a little dubious. He does a favour for the wealthy and charming Felix Catton (Australian actor Jacob Elordi). Felix’s confident personality is the opposite of Oliver’s. But Oliver’s kind act is later repaid when Felix takes him under his wing and introduces him to the cool crowd. And then after a family tragedy befalls Oliver, Felix takes pity on him and invites him to spend the summer holidays with his family at their sprawling country estate, Saltburn.
Oliver begins to ingratiate himself into the lives of the aristocratic family. The family includes father Sir James (Richard E Grant), acid-tongued mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), and depressed sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). The family warmly welcome Oliver and embrace him. They even organise a Midsummer’s Night Dream-themed Bacchanalian party to celebrate his birthday. However, Felix’s watchful American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) resents Oliver’s presence and this sets up some tension between the pair. But the hedonistic summer of fun takes a turn, and Fennell’s tale grows darker as it develops.
Saltburn takes a couple of unexpected twists that subvert the audience’s expectations. Fennell gives the relationship between Oliver and Felix a strong erotic undertone, and the film constantly surprises. Fennell shot the film in the boxy Academy ratio. The script is laden with sinister undercurrents and a gradual air of foreboding permeates the material. But beneath the surface there’s also a satire about the decadence of the upper class. The drama unfolds to a contemporary soundtrack that includes The Killers, Arcade Fire and Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin) has a chameleon-like ability to inhabit the often creepy and unlikeable characters he plays on screen, and here he uses his slightly shifty features, hunched-over posture and unsettling facial expressions to good effect. This is, arguably, his best performance to date. And the movie’s final scene, in which he appears solo, is not easily forgotten. Elordi (Euphoria) , who will next be seen as Elvis in the upcoming biopic Priscilla, brings a casual seductive charm to his performance but his character remains somewhat underdeveloped. Grant (Withnail and I) and Pike (Radioactive) bring some humour to the material as Felix’s clueless parents. Paul Rhys brings a slightly unnerving air to his role as Duncan, the family’s ever-present and vaguely menacing butler.
Saltbush is a much more ambitious film than Fennell’s debut, and it shows that she has developed more confidence as a filmmaker. Production values are superb and this is a lavish production featuring sumptuous visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Babylon), who bathes the film in an over saturated golden palette, while Suzie Davis’s gorgeous production design for the sprawling family home allows audiences to immerse themselves in this environment of wealth and privilege.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film