Saltburn (2023, dir. Emerald Fennell)

by | Nov 14, 2023

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 127 mins

UK Distributor: Warner Bros

UK Release Date: 17 November 2023

WHO’S IN SALTBURN?

Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Paul Rhys, Lolly Adefope, Ewan Mitchell, Sadie Soverall, Reese Shearsmith

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Emerald Fennell (director, writer, producer), Tom Ackerley, Josey McNamara and Margot Robbie (producers), Anthony Willis (composer), Linus Sandgren (cinematographer), Victoria Boydell (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young Oxford student (Keoghan) is invited to his aristocratic friend’s (Elordi) family estate…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SALTBURN?

[This is a slightly re-edited version of our review for Saltburn from its showing at the BFI London Film Festival]

 In her debut feature Promising Young Woman, writer-director Emerald Fennell took aim at a fairly obvious target – in that particular case, the predatory behaviour of men and how their female victims are almost never given the opportunity to exact justice – but did so with a fiery wit, sharp dialogue, and a bold storytelling dynamic that constantly took the audience by surprise.

Her follow-up film Saltburn more or less does the same thing, this time focusing on the stark class divide and the grotesque wealth of those at the very top (a theme that has become hugely common in films as of late, from Triangle of Sadness to The Menu), with her signature acidic tongue and unflinchingly ambitious narrative choices very much intact.

However, Saltburn has a noticeably less sharp sting to it than Fennell’s previous film, certainly not for lack of trying as it is an often beautifully made film, but given its themes and heavily satirical nature, it’s almost a pity that it doesn’t entirely meet the standards of the filmmaker’s Oscar-winning predecessor.

Set in 2006, we meet young Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) as he’s arriving to study at Oxford University. A native of Merseyside, the intelligent but noticeably lower-class Scouser at first struggles to fit in with his snobbier classmates at first, but after befriending the handsome Felix (Jacob Elordi), he feels like he’s finally found a place to belong, after getting away from his parents who we learn are severe drug addicts.

When Oliver has nowhere to go for the summer, Felix invites him to stay at Saltburn, the extravagant estate of his wealthy family, including Felix’s chipper father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), his vacuous mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), free-spirited sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) who immediately distrusts their new guest. As the summer progresses, Oliver manages to embed himself within the eccentric family, but an underlying obsession soon leads to much darker outcomes that threaten the very dynamic within the walls of Saltburn.

A strangely compelling mix of Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr. Ripley, with just the tiniest hint of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon in places, the film has a deeply intricate set of narrative tricks up its sleeve, each one as carefully constructed as the big hedge maze at this massive estate. For one, Fennell puts the audience firmly in Oliver’s shoes as he slowly experiences the privileged lifestyle of this aristocratic family, but certain odd events quickly call into question the mentality as well as the validity of his protagonist.

Oliver, as Fennell writes him, is someone who may seem normal at first, but then he’ll be spying on his new friend Felix through the window scoring with a young woman, and later slurping up his bathwater (after, for extra WTF-ness, he’s clearly been jerking off into). This not only sets him up as an unreliable narrator (mostly through a flash-forward where he relays his experiences to a largely unseen figure), but potentially a dangerous anti-hero who, much like Patricia Highsmith’s eponymous figure Tom Ripley, has plenty of psychotic tendencies that aren’t entirely to be trusted.

Not all of Fennell’s storytelling techniques land quite as interestingly, though, which is part of what makes Saltburn ultimately lose some of its desired sharpness. A few reveals from the mid-point onwards start to present a more sinister, and possibly deadly, picture underneath the surface, but there are quite a few leaps in logic that Fennell is clearly wanting the audience to accept as part of her ultimate goal, some of which are a bit too much to go along with.

Without giving any specific plot details away, there are certain things that get lost in the mix like character motivation, backstory, and even an indication of how much time is passing between particular scenes, all underserved by Fennell’s desire to keep laying on the shock factor as more and more is revealed, even if such revelations don’t exactly make a whole lot of sense.

It’s certainly ambitious writing, and I can’t exactly call some of its methods unoriginal, but it really does feel like Fennell perhaps put herself under a lot of pressure to one-up herself after Promising Young Woman, which in and of itself contained surprises that were better ingrained into the plot, and in much smarter ways, than they are here.

Even if Fennell’s writing doesn’t completely work this time round, she has certainly stepped up her game as a director, here introducing a luscious style of filmmaking which carries a neatly gothic scent that lingers wherever we go, from the historic walls of Oxford to, of course, the many rooms and halls of Saltburn itself.

Visually, it looks absolutely stunning, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren adding some beautiful displays of colour that enliven even the darkest of nighttime sequences, contained within a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that makes every frame almost look like something out of a still photo in an art gallery.

Fennell also gets plenty of strong performances out of her cast, who do well to humanise their tricky characters while also playing into their darker tendencies, including an excellent Barry Keoghan who has an intriguing charisma about him that makes it easy to understand why someone like Felix, as charmingly played by Jacob Elordi, would want to bring him into his extravagant lifestyle. There’s even room for a small but memorable role for Fennell’s Promising Young Woman star Carey Mulligan, who steals nearly every scene as a family friend who’s long overstayed their welcome.

However, if there is a qualm to be had about Fennell’s direction, it’s that the film lacks a punchy pace which leaves it slow-moving in parts, to where you can start identifying scenes and even characters that could have easily been edited out without making much of an impact on the overall story. That, along with her tendency to leap too quickly into unexpected territory without establishing a wholly satisfying logic, leaves Saltburn less credible than it clearly wants to be.

Nonetheless, there’s plenty of fun to be had with the sharply funny dialogue, strong performances, and a directorial vision that is profound and, thanks to the cinematography, beautiful enough to get some enjoyment out of its messiness.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Saltburn is an ambitious but not entirely successful sophomore feature from writer-director Emerald Fennell, who certainly displays a strong knack for sharp, funny dialogue as well as gorgeous visuals, boosted by some beautiful cinematography and lively performances, but takes one too many leaps in logic to undermine the impact of its surprising turns.

Three out of five stars

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