Director: Emerald Fennell

Writer: Emerald Fennell

Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Reece Shearsmith, Paul Rhys

Producers: Tom Ackerley, Emerald Fennell, Josey McNamara, Margot Robbie

Music: Anthony Willis

Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren

Editor: Victoria Boydell

Cert: 15 (TBC)

Running time: 127mins

Year: 2023

What’s the story: It’s 2006, and Oliver Quick (Keoghan) is a Liverpudlian from a broken home, on a full scholarship to Oxford. After befriending popular student Felix Catton (Elordi), Oliver is invited back to Felix’s stately home for the summer to meet his eccentric family.

What’s the verdict: After Promising Young Woman, it makes sense for writer-director Emerald Fennell to focus on a promising young man for her second feature. But like its older sister, Saltburn is a slippery beast. A twisted Gothic riff on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, with class skewering and caustic wit aplenty, and lashings of homoeroticism.

Barry Keoghan is magnetic as Oliver Quick, a bright lad fleeing a broken home and drug addict parents. Attempting to navigate the cloistered, monied confines of Oxford University, he arrives dressed like Harry Potter and finds himself friends with a tightly wound maths genius and no-one else.

Until a chance encounter with Elordi’s effortlessly charismatic Adonis Felix thrusts him into the cool club. Or as close to the cool club as Felix’s haughty friends will allow, one dismissing Oliver as a “scholarship boy who shops at Oxfam.” But the aristocratic Felix is charmed by this lad from the wrongs side of the tracks, and the feeling is mutual.

Felix is soon insisting Oliver spend the summer with him at Saltburn, the family estate in the country. Meaning Felix is now navigating monied corridors and Felix’s family, including tremulous but sharp-tongued mum Elspeth (Pike), supercilious sister Venetia (Oliver), and doddery dad Sir James (Grant). Plus fellow student Farleigh (Madekwe), Felix’s antagonistic cousin, and an imperious butler, Duncan (Rhys). 

Surrounded by privilege, intrigues, sexual fluidity, and petty cruelties, is Oliver just another one of Felix’s summer play things as Venetia suggests? And does he even care?

As well as drawing on Brideshead Revisited (cheekily, Felix tells Oliver lots of Evelyn Waugh’s characters are based on his relatives) and a generous pinch of Patricia Highsmith, Saltburn comfortably nestles into that horror or horror-adjacent plotline of a stranger staying with a family, revealing their weaknesses and secrets, and perhaps his own. It’s a plot that’s cropped up in films as varied as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, Miike Takashi’s Visitor Q, Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, and Adam Wingard’s The Guest.

Plus, an episode of Only Fools and Horses, in which Del attempts to marry Rodney into landed gentry. Even Spencer and Call Me By Your Name share some of this film’s DNA, but feel insipid by comparison and neither are as good as that episode of Only Fools…

Fennell certainly paints the privileged of Saltburn as pompous, ridiculous, and cruel. Parenting stops at expensive educations and a posh roof over the head. Emotional stability arrives a distant second to decorum. But while the film is often not far from Charles Addams or The League of Gentlemen (whose alumnus Reece Shearsmith pops up here as a bored tutor), characters ring authentic. Much like the gangsters of a Scorsese crime movie (and there is a touch of The Family to the mercilessness of this family), we may not like them, but boy are we drawn to their world.

Fennell also clouds the water with her central figure. While understanding his beguilement at Saltburn’s splendour, Oliver is not always the most likeable, or indeed understandable of leads. “I’m a vampire,” he confides in Venetia during one nocturnal clinch, and we suspect he’s not lying.  

Keoghan is fearless in the role, unafraid to look diminutive and dweebish next to the 6ft 5ins Elordi, hitherto best known for Euphoria. Both actors run a range of experience and emotion with their characters and are magnetic throughout.

The supporting cast are likewise note perfect, particularly Pike and Grant who bring moments of extraordinary pathos to characters who could have been mere grotesques. Promising Young Woman fans will be delighted to see Carey Mulligan crop up in a darkly comic role as a tragic hanger-on.

As director, Fennell is a master of mood. Early scenes of genuine social anxiety and exclusion sit easily alongside broad gags, the comedy of embarrassment, and horror movie beats. While resisting to shoot the manor house like the Overlook Hotel, she does reference The Shining with a dazzling overhead shot of the estate’s maze. Choosing a narrow 4:3 aspect ratio creates the sensation of spying on events from behind hidden walls or through keyholes.

Not that everything works. Like Oliver, the film slightly outstays its welcome, and as the climax nears Fennell feels obliged to make transparent certain plot events that should have remained oblique.

But next to the good work done here, these are small gripes. Saltburn is an exciting place to visit and you would want to live there. Just without its current inhabitants.

Rob Daniel
Letterboxd: RobDan
Podcast: The Movie Robcast

Leave a Reply