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Saltburn: Emerald Fennell’s Strange, Somewhat Fetishistic Second Feature has it all, Mostly


Saltburn preview screening provided by Universal Pictures

Saltburn is like a box with lots of fun random toys, but ones that you might find yourself getting tired of quickly”

What if Get Out (2017) was Get In? Well you won’t have to look far to find out, with Emerald Fennell’s (Promising Young Woman) latest black comedy/thriller Saltburn (2023) taking the age old tale of weaselling your way into a rich family’s home by befriending their son, to the extreme. Well, maybe that isn’t an age old tale, but Fennell’s film is interested in everything from friendship and lust right through to betrayal and deceit. 

Driving those themes is the eerie outsider and scholar, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), who, after joining Oxford for a scholarship, quickly (pun intended) finds himself drawn to the popular, handsome and rich Felix Carton (Jacob Elordi). It doesn’t take Oliver long to befriend him after lending him his bike when Felix’s tire pops. Felix has an established clique though, and Oliver realises that pulling at heartstrings is the way to his heart, namely in the form of confiding that his father has passed away. 

Ultimately this sees Felix invite Oliver to his family’s grand estate ––Saltburn–– for the summer, where, like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, all of your worries seemingly disappear but darker truths emerge the longer you stay. It’s where we meet a majority of the film’s cast ––– Felix’s parents (the hilariously daft duo of Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), family friend Pamela (Carrey Mulligan) and cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe in a role far different from his recent Gran Turismo one). 

The group are an odd bunch, and Fennell’s film takes pleasure in ridiculing them where it can. At times it’s hard to gauge whether you’re laughing with the pompy rich and their approach to speaking before thinking, or whether you’re laughing at them. It’s easy to lay waste to elitists, Triangle of Sadness (2022) did so by leaning into and then doubling down on its craze, while The Menu (2022) did so by making a more gory mess of them. Saltburn, by contrast, does so by letting them ramble on while living comfortably in the haven they’ve built for themselves. 

Rosamund Pike as Elspeth

Rosamund Pike as Elspeth

For Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), he’s there for the ride and looking for the right moment to steer it off course. His intentions seem very mild on the surface, but beneath the veneer he’s presented to Felix and co is a more sinister, greedy side. And that’s to say that most of Saltburn is banking on the audiences willingness to buy into this very predictable ride. 

Don’t get me wrong, the sites along the way are a joy, with the gothic-esque setting of Saltburn manor standing out in such a way that you’d be a fool not to want to live there. Coupled with the very pleasing production design, well cast actors, and Linus Sandgren’s compact aspect ratio that feels more roomy than it lets on ––– it’s a very stylised production. Yet the film, like its picturesque location, is mostly style over substance. Fennell’s script tailspins into a story that feels like its keeping its distance for far too long before abruptly flipping on its head in the third act and eventually dragging itself to the finish line. 

It’s filled with creepy, grotesque moments of fetishistic indulgence (a bathtub and grave scene among many, that I won’t spoil) which are at once beguiling in the “I cant’t take my eyes of the screen” kind of way, but also in the “that’s pretty messed up, I wan’t to take my eyes off the screen” way. And for what it’s worth, even with the rather wonky script, it’s these moments that keep the film chugging along as we watch Oliver’s true self begin to show and those around him, crumble. But that’s really it. We’ve seen similar films over the years that deal with similar concerns, and Saltburn doesn’t stand out beyond those unlike Fennell’s debut Promising Young Woman which felt like it had more to say and said it better. 

Had the film kept its focused anchored more on the Oliver/Felix dynamic that it playfully teased, and this idea of a man going to lengths to submit to this adoptive figure who looks after people like they’re strays, then maybe it could have extracted some value from that dynamic. At the end though, Saltburn is like a box with lots of fun random toys, but ones that you might find yourself getting tired of quickly. 

Saltburn opens nationally from the 16th of November, 2023. 


Arnel Duracak

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