Greetings again from the darkness. Emerald Fennell won an Oscar for her original screenplay of her dark and divisive debut feature film, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020). She’s back as writer-director of her second feature film, and it’s every bit as dark, and even more scathing in its takedown of the rich and entitled. We are also treated to yet another awkwardly disturbed character for the growing resume of Barry Keoghan.
Oliver Quick (Keoghan) is a newly arrived student of the Class of 2006 at Oxford, and it’s clear from the first moment that he doesn’t really fit in, whether it’s his clothes, not smoking, his uneasiness with his tutor, or his social ineptness. He becomes transfixed on the BMOC, Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, fresh off his turn as Elvis in PRISCILLA). Felix is tall, handsome, charming, and rich. Life comes easy for him, and students are drawn to him – both male and female. He’s a modern-day aristocrat, and one day Oliver helps him out of a jam. This leads to a bonding, or more like worlds colliding. The first act is devoted to the development of this unexpected friendship, and leads to Felix inviting Oliver to spend the summer at his family estate … Saltburn.
Saltburn is nothing short of a magnificent castle. Felix’s eccentric family includes Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, GRAN TURISMO), an adopted “cousin” fellow Oxfor student who sees all but would never blow this gig; Venetia (Alison Oliver), the total mess of a daughter and sister; Poor Dear Pamela (Carey Mulligan), the total mess of a houseguest who has overstayed her welcome; Sir James Catton (Richard E Grant), the childlike father; and Espeth Catton (Rosamund Pike), the former model drama queen passive-aggressive mother. It’s a motley crew that puts ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ to shame for entitlement.
As the summer progresses, we see Oliver in action as he weasels his way into the good graces of some, while creating leverage over others. His non-descript looks, quiet demeanor, and background story lead some to protect him at the same time others distrust him. As viewers, it’s obvious to us that something isn’t right with Oliver, yet director Fennell and Keoghan’s performance keeps us hopeful that things won’t become too skewed. Those hopes are dashed once we see Keoghan’s first bathtub scene (and subsequent disturbing moments), and Fennell serves up multiple references to his mouth in letting us know it’s not to be trusted.
The third act goes full dark in a deliciously wicked manner with Fennell and Oscar winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND) creating an Old World style within a contemporary world. The film is perfectly cast with Elordi quite magnetic as Felix, the not-so-obscure object of Oliver’s desire. Madekwe is spot on as the turf-protecting Farleigh, and Grant and Pike make the perfectly mismatched couple of privilege. Alison Oliver delivers the film’s best scene with her bathtub monologue, while Keoghan nails the creepy Oliver (in line with his roles in THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, and THE BATMAN. He has become the go-to psychopath. He even combines humor and horror for his happy naked castle dance in this film that has THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY (1999) as its most obvious comparison. Ms. Fennell strikes another blow against the entitled elite, although we do wish she hadn’t spelled out everything to end the film … a bit of mystique would have worked.
Opening in theaters on November 22, 2023