Director: Emerald Fennell
Screenwriter: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan
With the release of her debut feature film Promising Young Woman in 2020, Emerald Fennell established herself as one of the most exciting directors working today. Her candy-pop infused, #MeToo-inspired revenge thriller provoked challenging discussions and introduced the world to Fennell’s fresh voice and unique talents. With her sophomore effort Saltburn, can lightning strike twice?
The film opens at the beginning of the 2006/07 academic year as Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) enrols at Oxford University. Though Ollie struggles to make friends at first – hilariously summed up in the trailer by Ewan Mitchell’s great line “Did you know there was a college Christmas party tonight? NFI, me and you. Not fucking invited” – he quickly finds himself under the wing of charming and aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Before long, Catton invites Ollie to stay with him over the summer at his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, Saltburn.
The title card of the picture finds itself scribbled across the film’s 4:3 frame, like the graffiti you’d find sprawled over an old school textbook. Immediately, with this simple design choice, Fennell sums up the schoolboy immaturity of many of the characters; they think the world revolves around them but really their problems are the sort of issues you’d find on the playground, and they hold onto their grudges forever. What makes it so terrifying, as their placement as the elite in society shows, is that these are the people who hold power. The ones that make the rules for everyone else yet don’t abide by them (a very funny karaoke scene in the film seems to poke fun at a very real example of this in recent British politics), the kind of people who don’t need to worry financially. There is maybe even something to be said about the latter point with regard to the film’s setting in 2007, right before the climax of the 2007–2008 financial crisis.
Making up this abhorrent and aberrant family are an unforgettable cast of characters made up of the airhead family patriarch Sir James (Richard E. Grant), the oblivious family matriarch Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), Felix, his siren-like sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and their cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a particularly mischievous jester-like character that entertains the whole family. Oh, and let’s not forget the ludicrously melancholic “Poor Dear” Pamela (Carey Mulligan). All of whom are portrayed wonderfully by each respective actor, often delivering hilarious comedic performances with such an immense depth to them that not only do they make us laugh but they offer a scarily accurate portrayal of the type of people we allow to control our world.
The loathsome behaviour and elitist thinking of each character is introduced very early on. This is perhaps best exemplified by Oliver’s first meeting with his tutor, in which he is essentially mocked for having completed the summer reading, rather than celebrated for his hard work. All the while Farleigh, who is twenty minutes late, gains the respect of the tutor due to his family name and the power that it holds. In this world, status beats out hard work every time. Equally so, the first time Oliver and Felix officially meet, Felix’s bike has a puncture and Oliver offers him his bike so that he can make it to class even though it is clear that Felix really wasn’t doing much to even attempt to fix his bike. Felix was raised to believe that all of life’s problems would be solved for him.
In spite of all this, Oliver can’t help but to find himself seduced by their lavish lifestyles, just as we can’t help but to be tempted by the Catton family, leading to both us and Oliver finding ourselves entangled in their web. It is in the way that the film is shot that allows Fennell to seduce us so easily. Shooting the stately home as though it were a fetish object, Fennell captures the alluring nature of such a home in the most perfect way that it becomes clear why anybody who enters would never wish to leave again.
Saltburn doesn’t produce a product that simply delivers a message of the evils of privileged high society, but instead delivers them as fully fleshed out humans of both good and bad doing. Just as Felix may be a spoilt brat he is also by far the most understanding of the family and the one who is constantly generous to Oliver for little reason other than genuine kindness. Jacob Elordi captures this in his layered performance as Felix, bringing a charm and charisma to the character as well as a childish nature.
Instead, Saltburn shows the evils of desire and the lengths that many will go to in order to get what they want. In the game that is Saltburn, everybody wants something and they are all playing against each other to get it. It’s like ‘Succession‘ for the ‘Skins’ generation.
Though it is certainly an ensemble piece and one in which each performer must be nothing short of brilliant in order to make the world of the movie work, the story really rests on the shoulders of lead actor Barry Keoghan. He, along with Fennell’s wonderful direction, brings Saltburn to life. As the film progresses and it is Oliver who becomes the desirable object, things begin to get interesting and Keoghan’s portrayal of this journey is nothing short of spectacular. Not only does he capture the growth and progression of his character with precision, but with each new scene he brings something a little different, making Oliver’s evolution all that more interesting. Come the end of the film, once Oliver has transformed into his final form, it is clear that what we have just witnessed is a special performance that will linger in the mind for years to come.
Deciding which of Fennell’s two feature films is better will inevitably come down to a matter of taste. For some, one message will hit harder than the other, but for others the pacing and structure will leave a lasting impact. It all comes down to the individual. What is clear, however, is that Emerald Fennell is one of the most exciting directors working today and Saltburn marks the second successive masterpiece in her short but impactful career.
Saltburn is a seductive odyssey of lust, desire and betrayal that plays out like a Shakespearean episode of ‘Skins’, with a slight dash of ‘Succession’. Perhaps just as importantly, it does for Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” what Promising Young Woman did for Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind”. Emerald Fennell has done it again.