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Saltburn ★★★★



Directed: Emerald Fennell

Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe

Released: 17 November 2023 (UK cinemas)

The Great Gatsby meets The Talented Mr Ripley – that’s what awaits those who sit down for Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s ambitious follow-up to her Oscar-winning debut, Promising Young Woman. Fennell weaves a darkly funny, deeply clever tale of power, privilege and the difference between wanting to be with someone versus wanting to be them.

Barry Keoghan takes the lead as the awkward, seemingly clueless Oliver Quick, a “scholarship” kid who’s landed himself at Oxford University. He immediately notices the effortlessly charismatic Felix Catton (a stereotypically posh Jacob Elordi) in his college’s court, becoming infatuated – not just with Felix, but with everything he stands for. Oliver, using a combination of on-the-cover kindness and a heavy dose of self-pity, befriends Felix to the dismay of Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Felix’s right-hand man (and a member of his extended family).

After Oliver experiences a personal tragedy, Felix takes a deeper interest, inviting Oliver to his family’s mega-mansion – Saltburn – for the summer. Oliver graciously accepts, leaving his Merseyside-based mother for a dreamy few months under the English sun. But what ensues at Saltburn is far more nightmarish.

Fennell flexes her comedy chops with non-stop one-liners, with the Cattons serving as caricatures of Oxbridge upper-class. Rosamund Pike especially shines as Elsbeth, Felix’s radiant, carefree mum who loves a good gossip and traded lesbianism for heterosexuality because it was simply “too wet”. Elsbeth can’t stand ugliness – rather than confronting unpleasant realities, she and her husband, Sir James (Richard E. Grant), chat about the weather, stick to a rigid schedule and pay their way out of problems.

Each actor succeeds in their own right, but Keoghan’s performance is especially nuanced. He puts on a fresh face for each interaction, switching seamlessly between personalities. With Felix, he’s shy and smitten; with Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), he’s dominant; with Farleigh, he’s smug. By playing his cards right – and by using sex as a strategic advantage – Oliver manages, at least in the short term, to manipulate all three.

Elordi is a natural Felix, a gorgeous, magnetic force that draws people in like a moth to a flame – and Oliver is a moth, says Venetia in her venomous final monologue. As the story unfolds and Oliver’s background reveals itself in what comes to be the film’s defining moment, the tension between Keoghan and Elordi comes to a boil. Up until that point, Elordi’s best moments were his completely unironic introductions to Saltburn (“That’s where I accidentally fingered my cousin”) and his snide remarks at the supper table. As his disgust towards Oliver becomes palpable, Felix is no longer one-sided.

Saltburn’s production design does some serious heavy lifting, resulting in an aesthetic that’s part the Palace of Versailles and part Spring Breakers – making it easy to see why Oliver is so allured by the Cattons’ lifestyle. The film’s also aided by Linus Sandgren’s (La La Land, No Time to Die) cinematography, with several long takes (including an absurd final scene, which mixes Hugh Grant’s dance in Love Actually with full frontal nudity) and well-placed upside-down shots.

Saltburn’s sheer magnificence masks the – sorry, Elsbeth – ugliness within; it’s a place where people lose themselves, where love blurs into lust, lust into obsession and obsession into hatred. It’s a place where no one is safe, where friends become foes, where words become empty. Oliver’s ‘innocent’ fascination with Felix turns morbid, and the film’s third act contains – in true Ripley-Dickie fashion – a cold-blooded kill.

It’s at this moment that the plot ultimately loses its direction, and the film starts to feel a little silly. One by one, the Cattons drop dead, and Oliver’s ability to charm Elsbeth lands him as Saltburn’s successor. While this ending feels rushed, it does make sense – Oliver’s actions up to that point have been carefully plotted, a sign of his intellect and potential sociopathy. Throughout, Saltburn is told through flashbacks, though this decision adds little to the finale’s emotional impact.

Despite its imperfections, Saltburn is sexy, scary and entertaining from start to finish. A parable which warns us of the danger in fixation, the film is beautifully composed, the comedy well-timed and the performances convincing. Fennell has undoubtedly established herself as one of Britain’s most promising young talents.

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