Jealousy, intrigue, and weirdness make Saltburn an eat-the-rich hoot
Writer/director Emerald Fennell made her feature film debut with the provocatively great 2020 film, Promising Young Woman, which saw its protagonist single-handedly – and, perhaps, foolishly – taking on male sexual predators. Her follow-up, Saltburn, has another protagonist with a one-track mind, this time a young man obsessing about joining upper crust English society.
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a student at Oxford University who longs to be part of the popular crowd, especially the group led by Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who has everyone he meets fawning over him. Through a few chance meetings, Oliver does manage to endear himself to Felix, who invites him to spend the summer with him and his family at their estate called Saltburn.
There, Oliver is able to participate in the seemingly carefree revelry enjoyed by Felix and his family, including mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), and sister Venetia (Allison Oliver). With hangers-on like fellow school friend Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) and Elspeth's friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan) along for the ride, Oliver discovers exactly how the filthy rich live, slowly but surely insinuating himself into each of their lives.
Films set on ornate British estates tend to be stuffy period pieces, so Fennell’s story is initially a breath of fresh air, telling a more modern version that’s full of life. Colors pop from every shot, especially the film’s many party scenes (and their aftermath). The sequences are the definition of excess, but deliciously so, as Fennell also fills them with hilarious dialogue that highlights the privilege of rich people who’ve never known a day of need in their whole life.
The strength of Oliver’s desire to join their ranks shifts constantly in the film, at first subtly and then in huge jumps. Fennell appears to have taken inspiration from The Talented Mr. Ripley, both in the haves vs. the have-nots aspect of the story, and in the fluctuating sexuality of Oliver. If it helps him get closer to his goal, Oliver has no trouble playing both sides of the fence, as it were, and in increasingly bizarre ways.
Just as she did in Promising Young Woman, Fennell makes certain storytelling choices that may not sit well with all viewers. The third act has more than a few of these, especially the culmination of the story, and while those decisions don’t always work, the fact that she went for them at all is deserving of some credit. Too many filmmakers try to play it safe, and it's much better to have someone try and fail than not try at all.
Keoghan has an innocent look to him that belies the intensity he can bring, which makes him ideal for a role like this. He’s up for whatever Fennell throws at him, which is quite a lot, and he succeeds even if the scenes don’t always work. Elordi plays a spoiled-but-empathetic rich kid well, and Grant, Pike, Oliver, and Madekwe give equally interesting performances. Mulligan has a short but funny role in which she plays against type.
While not as good as Promising Young Woman, Saltburn demonstrates that Fennell is still a filmmaker to watch. Her ideas are off-kilter enough to give her a distinctive voice, and she deserves to be given many more opportunities to bring her perspective to the big screen.
Saltburn is now playing in theaters.