22 Nov 2023

Review: Saltburn

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 22 November 2023

Writer-director Emerald Fennell started out as an actress playing upper-class types like Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown.  

But it all changed with the revenge fantasy Promising Young Woman - multiple awards, including an Oscar for Fennell’s script, and some heated arguments around a lot of water coolers.

Her new film Saltburn takes on the English upper class, but the tone is strangely similar. 

Barry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe in Saltburn.

Photo: MGM/Amazon Studios

Fennell seems to tap into a set she knows very well – Oxford, country houses, Cool Britannia during the Blair/Britpop years – and also into a particular genre of English novel.

The English have always had a fascination with the indiscreet charm of the aristocracy. It’s reflected in a long line of stories about outsiders trying - and generally failing - to be admitted. 

Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Brideshead Revisited of course - and latterly the added villainy of The Talented Mr Ripley. Saltburn borrows from them all.

We meet the decidedly non-U Oliver Quick as he arrives at Oxford. His classmates qualified for the ruling-class finishing-school by dint of money and connections, but Oliver had to rely on hard work and scholarships.  

He’s the outsider gazing at the likes of Felix Catton with envy, until one day he bumps into Felix, who has a flat tyre and Oliver lends him his bike.

Able to do the impossibly glamorous Felix a good turn, Felix invites him for drinks with his A-List friends.  

And suddenly, to his surprise, Oliver finds himself accepted – vouched for by his new best friend.

It’s light-years away from Oliver’s tragically disadvantaged background – he’s essentially homeless these days. 

Shocked, Felix insists he come to stay for the summer. Stay at the family’s ancient pile, Saltburn.

Felix is played, surprisingly, by an Australian actor, Jacob Elordi.  Oliver is another bit of stunt accent work – Irish actor Barry Keoghan playing Liverpudlian.   

Ollie arrives at Saltburn to face the family.

And they certainly catch your attention. None of the Cattons seem to work, as such, they simply recline in the luxury of their astonishing home, and in their spare time they collect people.  

Like Oliver - this year’s good cause, according to sister Venetia.

Sir James - Richard E Grant – is all teeth and glib catchphrases, while Lady Elspeth is a dream part for the always brilliant Rosamund Pike.  

And what I particularly loved about her – and the rest of the characters too – is how specific the period of Saltburn is.

This isn’t 1920s Downton or ‘40s Agatha Christie. This is those characters updated to the 1990s and 2000s.  

Everyone seems to be reading Harry Potter and watching Seth Rogen comedies like Superbad. And Elspeth’s background is pinned as soon as she name-checks Jarvis Cocker and ‘Common People’.

Also in the house are minor Cattons like cousin Farleigh – Archie Madekwe as a one-man, cynical Greek chorus - and the anything but cynical Poor Dear Pamela – a heartbreaking cameo from Carey Mulligan.

Saltburn is clearly told by someone who knows this world inside and out. And then, as she did with Promising Young Woman, Fennell takes great pleasure in kicking the entire edifice into the moat.

The last twenty minutes will either elicit the reaction “Wow!” or a less enthusiastic “Hang on a minute…”

I thought I was part of the first group, but as time passed I had my doubts, even though – or because - I’d been rather enjoying the film until that moment.  

That said, Saltburn is undeniably the movie Fennell set out to make – a poison pen letter to the English upper class. It’s what they used to describe – in Saltburn’s illustrious predecessors - as “a curate’s egg”.  I assure you parts of it are delicious.

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