“Admiration and familiarity are strangers,” wrote George Sand.
In Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film, set in Oxford in 2006, Oliver Quick (Keoghan), a scholarship boy from Merseyside, is infatuated with Felix Catton (Elordi), a wealthy boy with the physique of a Greek god. When Oliver manages to work his way into Felix’s orbit, a friendship blossoms. Felix appears to admire Oliver for transcending his humble beginnings in a household marred by addiction. With Oliver’s parents’ issues worsening, Felix invites Oliver to stay at his imposing, stately home, Saltburn.
The burgeoning friendship/love story is affectingly depicted, with great work from Elordi, who flits between complacency and kindheartedness, and Keoghan is a watchful presence, whose unassuming demeanour conceals a more menacing streak. (Felix would be wise to heed George Sand’s quote.)
At Saltburn, Oliver meets Felix’s family: his seductive, ironical sister Venetia (brilliantly played by Alison Oliver); Felix’s icy mother, Elsbeth (Pike), whose surface magnanimousness barely hides her hauteur and innate bitchiness; Felix’s father, Sir James Catton (E Grant); freeloading family friend, Pamela (Mulligan); and Felix’s dependent, cynical cousin Farleigh (Madekwe).
Mostly, Saltburn, is an improvement on Fennell’s unaccountably garlanded Promising Young Woman, an empty exercise in hot-button, talking points. For a while, the main characters in Saltburn feel like real people rather than loaded dice serving the plot.
An early scene indicates the subtler, more subterranean film this could be. Venetia coquettishly appraises Oliver: “I can see why Felix likes you. You’re so… real.” Venetia then tells Oliver she prefers him to last year’s guest. An electric scene charged with ambiguity.
The young characters are more interesting than the one-dimensional parents. Fennell portrays characters she has contempt for with broad strokes, like the procession of predatory men in her eye-rollingly polemical debut. However, Pike is brilliant, somehow breathing life into an imperiously callous caricature.
The dynamics among the youth feel alive to possibilities. Interpersonal power struggles occur between Farleigh and Oliver, both of whom are trying to suck the family’s teat. Things get strained between Felix and Oliver when a more sexual dynamic occurs between Venetia and Oliver. In fact, all the young characters are involved in some psycho-sexual drama.
But alas, as with her debut, Fennell seems to think people need to die for a film to have heft. We get a histrionic, tragic third act, with raucousness giving way to a stifling lugubriousness. Plus, the guessable twist, rather than opening up a new world, has a flattening effect. It retroactively diminishes the complexity of earlier scenes. The bloodier it gets, the more bloodless Saltburn feels. Ironically, the film is much more engrossing when it’s just dealing with the simple vicissitudes of Felix and Oliver’s friendship. It’d be better as modern-day Brideshead Revisited, but it wants to be The Talented Mr Ripley, or Donna Tart’s novel, The Secret History.
With the deaths stacking up, the ending, unfortunately, becomes risible. I won’t spoil it, but watching it is its own spoiler. I found myself longing for the early scenes, which were fun, kinetic, and downright perverse.
Still, for 70 percent of the runtime, Saltburn is a riot, thanks to its committed cast and Fennell’s willingness to be outrageous, but, much like a night of torrid excess, you wish the film opted out when the going was good so we don’t have to suffer an intrusively bleak hangover.
If she realised that restraint is her friend and that plot is better when it stems from character, Fennell has a great film in her.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustration: Gabriela Joyce
Director: Emerald Fennell
Talent: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Carey Mulligan.
Release Date: November 17