Review: Saltburn (Emerald Fennell)

“Tonally very bizarre, but in a way that feels undeniably intentional, Saltburn is an astonishing achievement.”

“This place, you know, it’s not for you”

I would imagine we have all experienced that feeling of crippling loneliness in our younger years, where we look at our peers and wonder how they can be so popular and successful while we sit in the shadows. This is usually an important moment in our childhood or adolescent years, since it builds character and develops confidence once we are able to overcome these moments. Emerald Fennell seems to be fascinated by this concept, since she’s taken a relatively universal experience and crafted it into Saltburn, a film that dares to disregard morals and decency as it explores the trials and tribulations of the wealthy class as seen through the perspective of a particularly sinister outsider who makes his way into their world, his intentions initially quite murky until we realize there is something much deeper to a seemingly pleasant coming-of-age story. Set between the historical halls of Oxford and the titular manor that serves as the home for many of the central characters, the film focuses on Oliver Quick, a seemingly shy and introverted young man who struggles to fit in and soon finds himself befriending the charismatic and wildly popular Felix Catton. This young man’s status as one of the college’s most notable students is mainly due to his family, who are the very epitome of nobility, spending their days in luxury throughout their sprawling manor. It becomes Oliver’s temporary home after Felix invites him to waste the summer away in the grandeur he has never gotten to experience. A film composed out of a seemingly endless stream of twists and turns, very few of which we are ever able to anticipate, Saltburn is an excellent sophomore effort from Fennell, who had already established herself as a tremendous new voice in contemporary cinema with her debut Promising Young Woman. With Saltburn we find that she has only grown, her voice just as striking but continuously developing to become even more insightful, while not losing that rebellious spark that has informed a lot of her work. By no means an easy film or one that is going to appeal to every viewer, Saltburn still has a very peculiar approach to certain ideas, but for the sheer ambition that went into its creation, as well as the brilliance of how it holds the audience captive, it warrants every moment of our attention even if it is for two hours of brutal and uncomfortable psychological manipulation.

Fennell has benefitted from being a writer and director who doesn’t feel it is necessary to hide the message of her films, at least not in the ways we may anticipate. In both of her films, she instead relishes taking quite obvious concepts and reconfiguring them into something more engaging and unexpected, a lot of which has to do with the delivery. Saltburn is a film that makes its intentions very clear – this is a story about a young man manipulating his way into a friendship with a fellow student, and in the process managing to make his way into the high society that he has always envied from afar but had yet to experience for himself. After a slow first act which is primarily used to explore the friendship between the two main characters as they get to know one another and realize that they have a common connection that defies their preconceived social standing, the film begins to reach its peak when we arrive at the lavish estate that will be the stage for a series of mind games between various individuals. It is not surprising that the best moments come from how Fennell explores this family and their daily routine. In some ways, Saltburn is a pitch-black comedy about the concept of wretched excess, the way the wealthiest people live their lives to the point where their luxury becomes almost grotesque. Despite the beauty of their countryside manor and the seemingly endless stream of splendour that they take for granted, we start to feel profoundly uncomfortable, which is an intentional choice on the part of a director who wants to create an atmosphere where we feel the same sense of unease as Oliver. He has been thrust into this world of opulence and forced to navigate it, trying his best to fit in but knowing that he never will. Fennell is taking aim at the class system as a whole, looking at the relationships between a family who would like to think that they are better than those who do not have the lives that they do, but in reality are just as ignorant about reality as the people they judge for failing to live up to this impossibly high standard. There is something quite macabre about how Fennell approaches the theme of wealth, which is shown as being almost repulsive, if not outright terrifying – and with the veneer of sardonic dark humour lingering over many of its more intriguing moments, it is obvious that her intention was to find a darker side to the eccentricity of the wealthy and their tendency towards excess.

Fennell creates a captivating story that eventually becomes quite unhinged, abandoning decorum and instead presenting a more perverse side to the sophistication that seemingly drives the narrative. The film may feel quite unsteady and fast-paced, especially since there are moments in which we are presented with a barrage of information shown to us in rapid succession (and where making sense of what is being said initially is almost impossible). But the foundation of the story is incredibly clear, and once we reach the point where all the pieces fall into place, Saltburn begins to develop into quite an intriguing blend of psychological thriller, dark comedy and melodrama, which Fennell combines to form an expressive piece of filmmaking. This is a story about a predator seeking out his prey, which takes the form of an opportunistic young man from the working class manipulating everyone around him in an effort to rise above the people who perceive themselves as superior, without realizing how very easily he can take advantage of them through a few calculated actions that expose vulnerabilities they may not have even known existed. Obsession is a powerful narrative tool, and Fennell uses it as the foundation for Saltburn, crafting an intense story that takes the form of a cat-and-mouse game between various characters, all of whom are seeking dominance but don’t realize that it takes a lot of skill to be the ultimate victor, something that only our seemingly penniless outsider of a protagonist possesses. The film is tense in ways that can be excruciating and perhaps even frustrating, a feeling Fennell intentionally amplifies to show the sense of foreboding danger that lingers throughout – and by the time we reach the final act, perhaps the most distressing and unsettling 45 minutes of cinema of the year, we find ourselves witness to a harrowing demonstration of psychological manipulation. Not many films manage to feel both lavish and bleak in equal measure, but using a concept as simple as the one that drives Saltburn allows for some truly unforgettable moments that create a sense of profound despair and disgust. Not pleasant sensations, but they still serve a vital purpose in terms of how Fennell explores these themes and presents them as the source of some truly unsettling moments.

A film like Saltburn needs to have uniformly strong performances since such a story can only be effective if every actor is working in tandem to both tell the story and honour the shifting tone of the narrative. Fennell has the benefit of a solid ensemble, choosing a group of actors that are perfectly suited to their roles even if they may not appear so at the start, with the element of surprise being one of the strongest tools in the director’s arsenal. Barry Keoghan has been steadily rising to become one of our best young actors, so it would be pointless to proclaim that his performance here is some revelation or breakthrough moment, since he’s done more than enough work to warrant our attention. However, Saltburn is bound to become a career-defining role since his performance as the chameleonic and impish Oliver Quick required every skill he had, in particular the ones that he had not been given a chance to demonstrate in the past. He has often been cast as off-kilter, slightly sinister characters, but here he can run the full gamut of emotions, developing an anti-hero that is both despicable and enticing in equal measure. He is joined by Jacob Elordi, another promising young actor who has already begun to assemble quite an impressive set of projects that showcase a versatility we don’t often find from actors so early in their careers. The chemistry between Keoghan and Elordi is incredible, and we feel the sexual and psychological tension between them every time they are on screen together; the entire film could have been built off their interactions at Oxford. Fortunately, Fennell has the good sense to expand on the story, since it gives us the chance to become acquainted with the other characters, particularly the parents. They are played brilliantly by Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, both of whom have what appear to be relatively conventional characters but who exhibit layers of complexity that allow them incredible moments, being more than just comic relief for an otherwise very tense story. Saltburn is also a great opportunity for Alison Oliver and Archie Madekwe (who have been doing solid but underseen work) to showcase their talents, just as strong as the rest of the cast. As one of the year’s best ensembles, Saltburn makes great use of its actors to look deeply into the lives of these characters, exposing their flaws and creating a deeply unnerving and profoundly shocking glimpse into the bleaker aspects of the class system, particularly the people who work laboriously to maintain such a vicious set of conventions.

If we can set aside the broader and more eccentric aspects of the film and instead focus on its message as a whole, we find that Saltburn looks at some universal subjects that are not only tied to the theme of wealth and excess, but also touch on ideas relating to more common conversations. It may be difficult to take notice in between the dizzying, rapid-fire execution of the plot, but the film is about the darkest recesses of the human condition, and we find that Fennell is as intrigued by the idea of exploring desire in various forms as she is focused on satirizing the wealthy and their gullible nature. The character of Oliver is a complex one, and while a lot of merit goes to Keoghan for his portrayal, we also need to take note of what he represents. Inspired by characters like Tom Ripley and Iago, he is a repulsive sycophant who we find ourselves starting to understand (although I’d be hesitant to even hint at the idea of him being a sympathetic protagonist – Fennell works hard to show him as a deeply unlikable individual), only because he represents the temptation to satiate our desires by any means necessary. His character is profoundly ambiguous – we never quite know if his desires are for Felix himself or rather what he represents, but the story explores his determination to satisfy these cravings. The characters negotiate their sexuality, and we can assert a queer reading onto nearly every one of these people just as much as they try and assert their social dominance. The entire experience becomes one based on people attempting to prove why they are better than those around them, and as a result needing to have every one of their impulses not only allowed but outwardly celebrated. There is a fluidity present in Saltburn that allows us to look at it much more critically than just as a straightforward satire of the wealthy. The most provocative moments tend to reside in the more loosely defined aspects of the story, which are based squarely around unpacking various elements of the human condition and presenting it in stark detail, holding up a mirror to the audience. It asks us to question whether or not we have the same desire to succeed by any means necessary and asks us to reflect on whether or not Oliver is truly a villain or rather an opportunist who was willing to sacrifice everything to get what he wanted. The complete lack of a moral ending confirms that Fennell was striving to make something darker, where the villains do manage to emerge victorious while the good people fall victim to their vulnerabilities.

Saltburn is not the kind of film that will easily find a wide audience, and it can take some time for even the most open-minded viewers to acclimate to a story that is truly deranged and perverse in ways that can feel quite shocking and entirely unexpected. Yet, the appeal of this film comes in how it never seems to be willing to settle for the conventions usually found in such stories and instead sets out to do something wildly different, taking the viewer on a journey into the epicentre of the sordid lives of the wealthy as seen through the eyes of one person daring enough to challenge their position in society. Every moment of this film feels like a major achievement, with the impeccable screenplay being filled to the brim with unforgettable quips and philosophical musings that leave a profound imprint on the viewer, and the visual composition of the film capturing every splendid detail of both the college and titular estate. These become characters in their own right, composed of endless mysteries laid down by previous generations, and where the unbearable weight of the past begins to impinge on the sanity of the characters as they try to forge their path forward. Tonally very bizarre, but in a way that feels undeniably intentional, Saltburn is an astonishing achievement – it may not appeal to everyone, and it can sometimes feel like it is hammering home its social message far too frequently, but we barely even notice after being hypnotised by the vibrant colours and discordant music (we will never be able to hear “Murder on the Dance Floor” in quite the same way again) as well as the bizarre blend of gallows humour and psychological despair. All of it is tied together by a great cast that work laboriously to bring these ideas to life and capture the very specific kind of unhinged, disorienting narrative that offers unique insights into common themes. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted film, and Fennell proves that her debut was not merely beginner’s luck, since she has emerged with an even thornier, more complex glimpse into the human condition, one that is darker and carries a sense of extreme discomfort that makes for an unforgettable experience.