Writer-director Emerald Fennell invites audiences into a lavish experience of debauchery and excess with her pristine psycho drama Saltburn. And whatever you think this movie is, well, you’ll be in for a surprise because Fennell dials the hedonism up to eleven, and audiences will fall into the unbridled fantasia of Saltburn.
Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer never to be forgotten.
As a filmmaker with her finger on the pulse, Emerald Fennell has been one to watch ever since her shocking debut with her cracking story of female revenge in Promising Young Woman. It was a film that startled audiences and showcased a bold new filmmaking talent. Naturally, we were waiting for her next film with bated breath. That film is Saltburn. And it makes for a WILD watch. From its first images and marketing materials, it was clear this was going to be a lavish and sexy watch of exorbitant hedonistic urges. Fennell not only delivers the ultimate voluptuary watch, but she has control of every aspect of this ferocious feature. This focus and devotion to both narrative and character show in the final product.
Saltburn’s narrative is shaped by past influences, along with a collective feeling to themes of wealth, desire, obsession, jealousy and change. But all of it is fed through Fennell’s own unique vision. And for Fennell, the focus is on delivering the unexpected. Saltburn’s narrative does progress in the usual way, taking an almost Great Gatsby-esque approach to the initial first act, with the young poor Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) drawn to the affluent and beautiful Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). But in Saltburn, nothing is what it seems, and Felix’s ancestral home and its many trappings act as a disguise and pull the audience into a host of new directions, each more shocking and twisted than the last. Character and narrative exist in a duality in Saltburn, and Fennell brings audiences a host of rogues, cads, delinquents, spinsters, and the queen bitch to this story, and her approach to her characters makes for a shockingly original watch.
At the centre of Saltburn is Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, a mousey, inconspicuous young college student who falls under the illusion and gaze of the beautiful and wealthy Felix Catton. And let it be said that Keoghan is a pure revelation in the role. His performance as Oliver is utterly subtle, and as an audience member, you never know what he’s going to do next. It’s plain and clear that the gorgeous Felix utterly spellbinds Oliver, but this mesmerizing voyeurism takes many twisting turns, and Oliver’s ultimate goals are not made clear until the picture’s final moments. Keoghan keeps audiences guessing with his performance, and whatever you think his ultimate aim is, well, you’ll never guess what he truly wants. Keoghan’s Oliver is a complex and resoundingly multi-faceted character, and through the narrative, we come to see his metamorphosis, and his change has lasting effects on the entire narrative.
Playing opposite Keoghan’s Oliver is Jacob Elordi as the wealthy, glamourous and utterly desirable Felix Catton, and via Elordi’s performance, it’s easy to see why Felix becomes the obsession of Oliver’s eye. Elordi is hands down the man of the moment right now, and he’s rapidly proving that he’s an actor who takes his craft seriously. Though he’s gifted with the looks of a Greek good and the quintessential cool of James Dean, Elordi is first and foremost an actor, and he’s choosing projects that fully test his range. And this suits Saltburn down to a tee. Elordi’s Felix is the ultimate upper-class prince. Dashing, charming and utterly dreamy, he instantly pulls people into his circle and under his spell. But this is no rehashing of The Great Gatsby, and Elordi’s Felix knows the power of his position in the world, and he has a cruelty of character that he’s more than happy to unleash when he wants to. Elordi’s performance as Felix is deeply impressive, and his character will spellbind audiences.
In addition to the leading presence of Keoghan and Elordi, Fennell fills out the rest of the cast with a range of stunning performers. And all leave their marks on the picture. Noted actress Rosamund Pike makes for the ultimate Queen Bitch as a Elsbeth, Lady Catton, Felix’s mother, and her tongue is wicked. Speaking in insults rather than pleasantries, Elsbeth’s frightful wit and banter will cause a reaction from audiences, and Pike steals every scene she is in. Alison Oliver’s Venetia Catton, Felix’s sister, is a playful tease, and her spacey demeanour sucks audiences in. Oliver is utterly witchy in the role, and she’s completely incorrigible. Archie Madekwe’s Farleigh Start, Felix’s cousin, is an A-class prat, and this spoilt prick takes an instant dislike to Oliver. Their back-and-forth hate is delicious, and Farleigh’s got one hell of a chip on his shoulder. Finally, the great Richard E. Grant brings everything together as Sir James, Lord Catton, Felix and Catton’s father, and he’s uniquely nuts in the picture.
Saltburn is an example of pure, unadulterated hedonism that is sprinkled with a good helping of fairy dust, cocaine and champagne in equal measure and topped off with a sizeable serving of nasty and stinging sexual energy. It’s a cocktail of pure manic bliss and is an utterly feral time in cinemas. But this rolling excess of crazy is not merely for pure shock value, well not just shock value, but it plays an essential part in the narrative and reveals the true intentions of our crazy batch of characters. There’s is a world that knows no limits, and this is expressed through the striking visuals and neon rainbow colour spectrum brought to the screen by Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren. All of it will leave audiences in a buzzing trance.
A key part of the success of Saltburn and its hold over audiences is its magnificent setting. The famed and reclusive estate of the Drayton House serves this purpose, and it’s easy to get lost in the Catton family seat of Saltburn. The location and setting of this grand estate are the perfect places to tell this story, and we come to watch as Oliver quickly assimilates to its historical, weathered, and opulent rooms and soon begins to change in its presence. It’s a beautiful estate, and through a unique sense of production design, lighting and cinematography, audiences are pulled deeper into Fennell’s devilish and decadent narrative. I also must say that Saltburn is a film best enjoyed in the company of a full cinema, and the collective experience of watching this film is what makes it so flavorful to consume.
Nothing is off limits in Saltburn, and this is a picture that will set your senses on fire. It’s a piece of work from a director who is testing the edges of her cinematic voice, and Emerald Fennell is pushing the boundaries in every direction and with great results. Saltburn is a piece of cinema that is utterly unique in its style, and its narrative will be spinning around your mind for days on end. Once you arrive at this opulent and operatic tale, you won’t be able to leave.
Image: Warner Brothers Pictures