Saltburn (2023)

October 28th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri: Emerald Fennell | Cast: Barry Keoghan, Rosamund Pike, Jacob Elordi, Richard E. Grant, Archie Madekwe | UK Thriller 122′

Emerald Fennell follows her Oscar-winner Promising Young Woman with a wicked tale that spins on two English maxims: ‘Never Complain, Never Explain’ and ‘To Thine Own Self be True’.

Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, student Oliver Quick (Keoghan) finds himself drawn into the world of Felix Catton (Elordi), who invites him to Saltburn, his family’s Oxfordshire estate, for a summer never to be forgotten.

Once again Fennell clearly knows the territory and Saltburn is an amusingly accurate account of life for an Oxford university ‘fresher’ (first termer) seen though the eyes of Oliver who is on a (state-funded) ‘full grant’. Gifted, gauche and perceptive he may be, but the star turn here is the privileged Felix who brings a refreshingly charismatic angle to the party. Felix is not only dashingly handsome, he is also empathetic and kind, extending the hand of friendship to Felix in the light of his father’s sudden death. Not so the rest of the Catton family who are the epitome of what English upper class eccentrics are supposed to be: arrogant, supercilious and hilarious. Urbaine and feigning ennui they lounge around in their magnificent pile in the country where Sir James (Grant) and self-confessed bisexual Lady Elspeth (Pike) hold sway (“I was a lesbian for a while but it was all too wet. Men are so lovely and dry”).

Richard E Grant and Rosamund Pike take to the milieu like ducks to water, along with Paul Rhys’ tight-lipped butler Duncan. The token black bohemian guest Farleigh (Madekwe) provides eclectic grist to the mix but Carey Mulligan, the star of Promising Young Woman, only makes a guest appearance as Pamela. Anthony Willis gives this all a funky twist with his original score and there’s a subversive scene where Oliver secretly watches Felix tossing himself off in the bath, ushering in his gay credentials which are never fully explored. Is he yet to come out or just a voyeur?.  

So Keoghan has a difficult, unlikable role that doesn’t convince as the middle class misfit who comes to stay fostering malign intent and latent bisexual undertones. He certainly manages a briefly sinister moment as a belligerent bisexual with feet of clay but when it turns out that Oliver is not what he seems, the proverbial shit hits the fan.

Fennell is certainly ‘a talent to amuse’, in the words of the great Noel Coward, but her plot resolution goes haywire in the final stages with a misjudged finale that feels unconvincingly shoed-in. Dreamily captured by Linus Sandgren’s inventive camerawork this cleverly observed satire is certainly worth seeing for its superb performances. MT

AMAZON MGM from 17 November 2023

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