Even if you are suffering from eat-the-rich fatigue (see The Menu, Triangle of Sadness, The Lesson, Parasite, Bait, The White Lotus, Succession etc.) and can no longer work up much of an appetite for wealthy folk being dreadful you must make an exception for the psychological thriller Saltburn. It’s by Emerald Fennell and it’s not so much the story that will blow you away as her audacity. “Emerald, you’ve gone too far” isn’t something she would ever be willing to hear.
Her first film, Promising Young Woman, was unafraid, perverse and thrilling and it’s the same with Saltburn. It’s Brideshead gone evil, some have said, with Tom Ripley vibes, and it is that — but Fennell is more daring than even Waugh or Highsmith. The audience gasped at certain points during the screening I attended. I was often watching though my fingers. It is fearless — and intoxicatingly so.
It is a dark satire about those who want in — and Oliver desperately wants in
The film opens at Oxford University and, as it’s 2006, it’s all Uggs and Juicy Couture (so that is our first horror right there). But I could take that, just about. That isn’t when I started watching though my fingers. It stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, a Northern boy on a scholarship, much derided by his better-off, somewhat caricatured peers. (“He buys his clothes from Oxfam,” one hisses.)
But as much as this is a dark satire about privilege it is also a dark satire about those who want in — and Oliver desperately wants in. He fixates on Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a fellow undergraduate who not only has the ease of old money but is also beautiful and adored and golden, always bathed in a shimmering light, like Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name.
Eventually, Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s estate. Maybe it’ll go off without a hitch. Bit of croquet, swimming in the lake, not much to report? Fat chance. You know it’s going to be mad and feverish and depraved. But what you don’t know is who is being drawn into which web — and who has set a trap for whom.
The Catton family estate is called Saltburn (played magnificently by Drayton House in Northamptonshire). The camera fetishizes it, would lick it if it could. It’s the same with the amazing objects within, as well as the inhabitants. The close-ups are intense. I don’t think Keoghan has a pore I don’t know about. People, it seems, are also things to be possessed. The Catton family consists of Felix’s mother (Rosamund Pike, on terrific form, and very funny), his father (Richard E. Grant in all his pomp) and his mentally fragile sister (Alison Oliver, also excellent). Plus there is a vicious cousin (Archie Madekwe) and a terrific cameo from Carey Mulligan as “poor dear Pamela,” a hanger-on. Casual cruelty abounds. This is, at least initially, a tale of homoerotic obsession. Oliver would drink Felix’s bathwater — and does. (There’s rather more to it than that; it produced gasps from the audience, although these were nothing compared to the gasping at another scene in a graveyard.) But if Oliver can’t have Felix, can anyone else? As events cumulate, there’s jealousy, treachery, a sense of danger round every corner. And what else might Oliver covet, considering he’s so in thrall to power, wealth and beauty?
Keoghan, who stole The Banshees of Inisherin from under the noses of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, must now, surely, be well on the road to becoming one of the great actors of his time. He has a particular squinty-eyed charisma that is transfixing. His character journeys from one sort of person to another in a way that never seems false or contrived.
Saltburn may have nothing to say, ultimately, but neither does a roller coaster. You’re in it for the ride. As for the ending (and the very final scene, which will be talked about, a lot), it’s a killer. From what I could tell, watching though my fingers.