The Plot: Merseyside lad Oliver (Barry Keoghan) comes from a troubled background, but that hasn’t stopped him from reaching the lofty heights of Oxford University. A stranger to this ultra-cliquey world, he falls in with the popular Felix (Jacob Elordi) and his group of friends. Felix invites him to spend summer at his family’s estate, Saltburn. Oliver is soon inducted into a lifestyle of wealth and luxury with patriarch Sir James (Richard E. Grant), his wife Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), their daughter Venetia and cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). They become quite attached to Oliver and he becomes quite attached to them too, sending everyone’s head spinning…
The Verdict: Now that’s how you really make an impression on an audience. That’s the first reaction that this reviewer felt as the credits rolled on razor-sharp, social-climbing satire Saltburn. The second reaction was that it was really a story of spiders and flies – but which characters were the spiders and which ones were the flies? It’s a fascinating tangle of themes to pour over in a post-film discussion, cementing Emerald Fennell’s position in the film firmament. Frankly, she needed it. The triple-threat writer-director-producer burst onto the filmmaking scene during the pandemic with Promising Young Woman, arguably one of the most confusing and over-rated films in recent memory. Let’s move on anyway. Having appeared in Barbie, Fennell has secured the backing of Margot Robbie as a producer on Saltburn and this has helped steer the direction of this second feature in a more direct and positive way.
Saltburn is a very self-assured film from the get-go, establishing a rich vein of humour in Oxford early on. As the story moves to the lush confines of the Saltburn estate, she then milks the characters and their spoiled situations for all they’re worth. Fennell is a keen observer of situations which require the characters to say the most ear-catching things and get away with it in the most casual way possible. Liverpool is somewhere ‘up north’. One character is coldly dismissed as doing anything for attention – even something drastic and permanent. The world of privilege and entitlement becomes a trap of sorts for Oliver as he attempts quick but skilful social climbing not unlike Jeremy Irons’ character in Brideshead Revisited. Oliver is something of an enigma himself, keeping his cards close to his (bare) chest while liberally revealing a few at key moments to the Catton family. They see through him… but he sees through them too and plays the game to keep himself there.
‘Lots of people get lost in Saltburn’ is the most telling line of the film. It’s delivered by Duncan, a ‘terrifying’ and omni-present butler, to Oliver. It even has a visual metaphor in the form of a hedge maze, which results in the film’s biggest laugh – even if it’s a bit morbid. It’s not just the characters that inhabit this world, it’s also this particular environment. If you’re looking for the private estate featured in the film, you won’t find it. One of the conditions of filming there was that its location be kept secret. It’s a suitably impressive and decadent location that becomes a character in itself, a gilded cage for its squawking birds pecking at each other. Even shooting within the boxy confines of the Academy aspect ratio, Fennell finds ways to seduce the audience with ravishing visuals and an earworm soundtrack from the era depicted (2006).
The seduction doesn’t stop there. He’s displayed it before, but Barry Keoghan leans further into that animal magnetism. Oliver becomes less of a wide-eyed innocent and more of a chameleon as the plot thickens. Now in his 30s, it’s a joy to watch the Dubliner mature further as an actor and deliver his best performance to date. He’s well-supported too by Jacob Elordi (soon to be seen in Priscilla) and Rosamund Pike, who nails her character spot-on with her caustic line delivery. Saltburn is a grand seduction then, a heady and consistently engaging film that will undoubtedly leave an impression on the heart and mind. Fennell’s superior second film is a sparkly emerald of its own that doesn’t lose its lustre, seducing all in its wake.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Saltburn (UK / USA / 131 mins)
In short: Grand seduction
Directed by Emerald Fennell.
Starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Rosamund Pike, Alison Oliver, Richard E. Grant.