REVIEW | 'SALTBURN' IS ALL STYLE BUT LITTLE SUBSTANCE
Warning: Some mild spoilers mentioned
There are satirical films and there are serious films. Then you have Saltburn, a psychological drama cross-bred with absurdist satire, which is both at once. Driven by a sexed-up critique over the trappings of British aristocracy, Emerald Fennell’s second feature has you smiling before immediately wincing; in the next moment, a throaty snort and then a sensual lip-bite. Or gagging. It’s a matter of taste, with little left to the imagination.
Image via Amazon Studios/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
One thing to be certain of: Saltburn is a funny film. Ample garnishing of homoeroticism drives the camp aesthetics and tongue-in-cheek humour which is the engine of Fennell’s latest effort. What is initially framed as yet another awkward coming-of-age entry unfolds instead into a (mostly) hysterical commentary on class dynamics and the allure of old money. Following in the wake of Oscar-winning debut Promising Young Woman, Fennell proves that screenplays are undeniably her strong suit.
Saltburn is the name of the Catton estate, which serves as the grandiose setting for much of the film. But before entry to the luscious grounds of Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and Elsbeth Catton (Rosamund Pike) is permitted, we must first endure the cinematically wearied lands of Oxford University. Here, we meet main man Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), whose working-class background places him at odds with his privileged peers. Rich, handsome and popular scion Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) enters soon after, first seen through Oliver’s bedroom window – Oliver’s voyeuristic tendencies start early, the first hint of something insidious lurking within.
The standard terrain of campus movies ensues: parties, library showdowns and endless pub trips. Oliver manages to befriend Felix (of course) following a charitable gesture where Felix bestows his new social pet with the evergreen moniker of university stardom: “a fucking champion”. Elordi recreates the posh boy drawl eerily well and his unrepentant earnestness pilots a performance that demands pity. Felix’s snobby friends do not share in his peculiarly keen friendliness, with his cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) leading the charge in shunning Oliver. Farleigh is Oliver’s foil and foe; both are financial leeches with a tenuous familial link giving Farleigh the edge in the social hierarchy department. His family ties are a double-edged sword though, a carrot-and-stick; Farleigh rubs shoulders with the aristocratic and the filthy rich, but he is entirely leashed to the whims of Sir James and the Catton treasury. After a conveniently helpful bit of bike assistance, Felix and Oliver strike up a transactional friendship. Oliver tickles Felix’s philanthropic urges and Felix offers samples of the upper-class lifestyle in return. It’s a fixer-upper relationship through and through, with smatterings of sex and scandal to keep things fun. Following a sob story about family tragedy, Felix invites Oliver to spend his summer at the Catton estate. What follows is a chaotic medley of all that could go right and wrong, with more than a little suspension of disbelief required.
Keoghan captivates in this lead role, entirely convincing, and breathing fresh life into the campus-loner trope. Oliver quickly enters the kink realm following a scene depicting him sipping semen-infused bathwater recently vacated by Felix. Sexual tension between Felix and Oliver saturates the screen, yet only heterosexual relations are shown. Homoeroticism is an underexplored strand of the narrative, relegated to a game of peek-a-boo and absurd self-pleasure. A nod to Pike’s performance as the tactless Elsbeth Catton, who marries matriarch and moron perfectly.
A word of caution: despite its excellent writing, Saltburn lacks in characters possessing any modicum of common sense. But perhaps that is the point: the upper-class live in such assumed comfort that the “stranger fucking danger” Oliver symbolizes is entirely overlooked. The final edit feels lacklustre too, with a rushed sequence of revelations in the final act failing to marinate successfully. It’s a cinematic crescendo with an absence of any coherent melody. Saltburn is entertainment at its core, with enough stylistic chutzpah to compensate for its notable shortcomings in structure.
Jethro is the film critic at FETCH London and a freelance culture journalist. He has had words in Empire, The Big Issue and other outlets.