Saltburn: an ostentatious black comedy designed to shock

Emerald Fennell’s decadent second feature about an Oxford scholarship student who winds up living in his friend’s lavish family mansion presents a provocative eat-the-rich schtick that quickly wears thin.

16 November 2023

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn (2023)
Sight and Sound

Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning debut, the pulpy and stylised rape-revenge fantasy Promising Young Woman (2020), came out during the peak of a post-#MeToo hunger for avenging angels – and Carey Mulligan was right there to claim her hot-pink halo. By contrast, Fennell’s follow-up Saltburn presents an eat-the-rich shtick so tired, showy and hollow that even a game Barry Keoghan cannot save it. Where Promising Young Woman had a clear-eyed vision, Saltburn feels like it was melted down from a moodboard dotted with images from better films.

The most promising section is a swiftly sidelined first act. Fennell brings to life the catty milieu at an elite university that she (an Oxford graduate) knows only too well. Bright outsider Oliver Quick (Keoghan) is dismissed as “a scholarship boy who buys his clothes at Oxfam” and avoided by all, except one cartoonishly wrought fellow pariah. On the other side of the social hierarchy is Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), endowed with old money, physical charms and a crowd of admirers. This narrative, set in the mid-2000s, is framed as Oliver looking back on what unfolded – extra years conveyed by back-combed hair – as he tells us that this was a love story. A montage reveals our unreliable narrator peeping through windows as Felix enjoys sexual intimacy with women. 

Cycling to class one day, Felix gets a flat tyre – and who should be there by the side of the road, ready to sacrifice his own steed but Oliver? A bike loan is, apparently, all that is required to secure intimate friendship with the most popular man on campus. This is the first jarring example of the story’s superficial treatment of its characters, an issue that becomes increasingly ruinous as the film swings for psychodrama territory, with the fatal flaw that the script offers caricatures rather than people. The central relationship between a beautiful, rich, golden boy and a homoerotically yearning nobody calls to mind The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and the comparison does Saltburn no favours. While Anthony Minghella’s film thrums with shifting psychological currents that build an overpowering tension, Fennell undercuts every suggestion of genuine drama with pop-culture-savvy punchlines to the point of diminishing returns.

Saltburn (2023)

Inexplicable decisions are the norm in this world and so, naturally, Felix invites his awkward new mate to the Cattons’ sprawling 14th-century estate, Saltburn, for the summer. Permanently languishing here are his mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike, sinking her teeth into lines like “I have a complete and utter horror of ugliness, ever since I was young”), tightly wound father Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and promiscuous, bulimic sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, again saddled with a difficult second album, after her role in the 2022 Sally Rooney television adaptation Conversations with Friends). Saltburn also houses a few hangers-on – Felix’s cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) and a rootless family friend, Pamela (Carey Mulligan).

Having set up shop in this ripe location and awarded each character a few droll gags, Fennell spends a very long time unleashing very little. In contrast with powerful fish-out-of-water satires like Get Out (2017) and The Stepford Wives (1972) the most menacing thing anyone can muster here is a passive-aggressive karaoke choice. Cruel comments are framed as gasp-worthy plot points, while Noughties anthems by MGMT and Sophie Ellis-Bextor stand in for atmosphere.

An ostentatious visual language strives to make something out of nothing, shooting conversations in intense close-ups and contriving flashy compositions that are disconnected from meaning. Fennell sets up provocative sexual scenes designed to shock: Oliver smearing himself in menstrual blood and drinking Felix’s semen-tainted bathwater before it swirls down the plug hole. Or Oliver head-to-head with Felix while wearing antlers at a fancy-dress birthday. These symbolic images feel shoehorned in to add dynamism to an increasingly inert plot. The rug-pull, when it comes, is predictable.

Australian heart-throb Elordi delivers a solid posh English accent, and his careless glamour serves as a teaser for his role as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s forthcoming Priscilla. Keoghan, meanwhile, acts as if he is in a much better film, refusing to tamp down his inscrutable strangeness and going for gold in two baroque nude scenes. But none of the talent involved has the space to shine, hemmed in as it is by the handsomely manicured walls of a maze that leads nowhere.

 ► Saltburn is in UK cinemas from 17 November.

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