REVIEW – ‘Saltburn’ is deliciously twisted, wildly provocative, and gloriously diabolical

Not to name names, but the pressure to deliver an equally impressive sophomore film after an acclaimed directorial debut normally cripples most filmmakers. After Emerald Fennell burst onto the scene in 2020 with the breathtaking Promising Young Woman and waltzed away with a richly deserved Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, all eyes turned to what the writer/director would serve up next. With the deliciously twisted, wildly provocative, and gloriously diabolical. Saltburn, Fennell bucks the trend to offer something as equally stunning and thought-provoking as her first work. Refreshing, naughty, shocking, and unforgettable, it’s a deliciously twisted tale of obsession and desire that is just as alluring as it is sickening.

The film centres on Oliver Quick (a sublime Barry Keoghan), a shy and unpopular Oxford University scholarship student who feels like a total outsider to his wealthy, elitist classmates due to his middle-class background. Oliver spends his free time quietly observing the popular pupils, yearning to become one of them, yet knowing it’s seemingly impossible. That all changes after a chance encounter with the endlessly charming Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), an aristocratic but strangely kind rich kid who takes an odd shining to this boy from the wrong side of the tracks.

While Oliver struggles to connect with Felix’s snobbish friends, particularly his snarky American pseudo-cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), this unlikely pair soon become close friends, so much so that Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s lavish estate known as Saltburn. Upon his arrival, the awkward Oliver is warmly welcomed by Felix’s parents, Lady Elspeth (a brilliant Rosamund Pike) and Sir Richard (the ever-reliable Richard E. Grant), and his flirtatious sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), while Farleigh and stern butler Duncan (Paul Rhys) are on hand to keep a suspicious eye on this unwelcome intruder. By the end of summer, every one of their lives will be inexplicably changed forever.

Any film critic who reveals anything more than this brief plot summary is doing audiences a disservice. Saltburn is a film best enjoyed as cold as possible on the often gobsmackingly stunning intricacies of Fennell’s twist-filled screenplay. What she’s created is something like the bastard child of Cruel Intentions and The Talented Mr. Ripley with narrative and stylistic influences of everything from William Shakespeare and Hammer horror to Park Chan-Wook and Luca Guadagnino. There is simply nothing else like it this year. And that’s why it will likely prove to be a deeply divisive piece of cinema.

Fennell takes some mighty big swings of the bat with narrative choices that will make your head spin. If Promising Young Woman was a damning indictment of toxic masculinity, Saltburn is an equally shrewd critique of class warfare and social aristocracy. Whether it’s her deft use of sardonically satirical dialogue or her innate ability to write detestable characters who highlight why money can’t buy you happiness, Fennell’s sharp deconstruction of the über-rich pulls few punches.

But it’s Fennell’s creation of the endlessly fascinating Oliver that really highlights why she’s one of the best character writers in the business right now. A curious enigma who only becomes more intriguing as the film progresses, Oliver is a voyeur who clearly has an agenda in mind from the moment he steps foot on the expansive grounds of Saltburn. Does he want to destroy the Catton family or become one of them? Is he in love with Felix or is he plotting his downfall? There are so many layers hiding beneath his seemingly reserved nature and Keoghan is the perfect actor to slowly reveal each and every of them.

With a transfixing performance that stands as one of the best and most unforgettable of the year, Keoghan absolutely shines. As a smiling sociopath who will continually keep you guessing, Keoghan relishes the opportunity to play such a deeply complex character. He’s so fully committed to the lunacy Fennell is assembling and embraces every scene with incredible verve. The methods in which Keoghan hauntingly dances with light and shade create something that’s equally comedic as it is unsettling. It’s a character that could easily get away from a lesser performer, but Keoghan remains consistently in tight control of Oliver, even as his actions become wilder and wilder.

Surrounding Keoghan is a masterful ensemble supporting cast where every member gets their moment to steal focus. Elordi is perfectly cast as the beguiling Felix, as he effortlessly embodies this enchanting golden boy with every possible privilege at his fingertips, yet who’s just as lost and miserable as the rest of us commoners. An Oscar-nom-worthy Pike is hysterically wondrous as the vapid, vain matriarch with a penchant for spitting venomous judgmental observations on those around her. Grant is a hoot as the ignorant patriarch, as is Carey Mulligan in an extended cameo as a visiting vacuous family friend who outstays her welcome.

Lusciously shot in Academy ratio by Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren, the glorious visuals of Saltburn are just as bewitching as Fennell’s screenplay. Sandgren captures some of the year’s most vibrant and downright stunning cinematography, elevated by sumptuous production design from Suzie Davies. The evocative way in which Fennell and Sandgren photograph Elordi really captures his undeniable beauty without falling into cheap exploitation. It’s in these shots that you can see just why Oliver and, well, just about everyone else are so utterly enamoured with him.

It’s difficult to go much further in analysing Saltburn without venturing into spoiler territory. Let’s just say the final act will leave you breathless and features another perfect needle drop from Fennell that will mean you can never hear Sophie Ellis Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” the same ever again. This is a remarkable film that will dance in your head for days on end. It’s ambitious and risky, but Fennell succeeds in making her madness sing. It’s both exquisite and repulsive with a nasty bite that’s hard to resist. It’s both beautiful and grotesque with a spellbinding story you won’t be able to shake. And, above all things, it continues to announce Fennell as a major force to be reckoned with in the male-dominated world of filmmaking.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan
Director: Emerald Fennell
Producers: Emerald Fennell, Margot Robbie, Josey McNamara
Screenplay: Emerald Fennell
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Production Design: Suzie Davies
Costume Design: Sophie Canale
Music: Anthony Willis
Editors: Victoria Boydell
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Date: 16th November 2023 (Australia)

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