Producers: Emerald Fennell, Margot Robbie and Josey McNamara Director: Emerald Fennell Screenplay: Emerald Fennell Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Ewan Mitchell, Reece Shearsmith, Lolly Adefope, Sadie Soverall, Millie Kent, Joshua E. Samuels, Dorothy Atkinson, Shaun Dooley and Paul Rhys Distributor: Amazon Studios/MGM
Perhaps the best way to characterize writer-director Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her well-received 2020 debut “Promising Young Woman” is as a perverse take on “Brideshead Revisited,” done up in an extravagant style designed to call attention to itself and make the audience so woozy that they might not notice how absurd everything in it is, down to the twist ending. Combining social satire and psychological thriller, “Saltburn” holds your attention, but its contrivances grow increasingly grating as it scrambles to its supposedly astonishing climax.
Barry Keoghan, who’s enjoying a genuine career spike at the moment, stars as Oliver Quick, a Dickensian-sounding name that seems well justified by his introduction first as a smooth, genteel, bespectacled fellow reminiscing about a past relationship with a man, in which he distinguishes between loving him and being in love with him, and then as a nerdy, disheveled student arriving at Oxford in 2006. The only classmate willing to fraternize with him is Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell), an arrogant, apparently unbalanced math wizard who, like him, is a middle-class outsider.
Oliver clearly aches for acceptance by the posh crowd, represented most brilliantly by tall, handsome golden boy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi)—surely a name designed to suggest “Felix the Cat” as a symbol of good luck and fortune—whose abrasive cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe) is Oliver’s fellow in sessions with their distracted don Professor Ware (Reece Shearsmith). His opportunity to get Felix’s attention comes while he’s bicycling to the library. He finds Felix on a bench, late for a tutorial because his bicycle tire has gone flat. Oliver offers to lend him his bike, and Felix’s gratitude is considerable. He not only invites Oliver to join his circle, much to Farleigh’s distress, but lends him money to pay for a round of drinks.
As their friendship deepens, Oliver confesses his unhappy past to Felix—how his parents were addicts subject to explosive behavior, and how he dreads school breaks. After Oliver reveals that his father has just died, Felix responds by inviting him to the Catton estate at Saltburn for the summer, and Oliver thankfully accepts. He finds the place magnificently baroque, and Felix’s family eccentric to say the least. Sir James (Richard E. Grant) is a dithering fool, and his wife Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike) a beautiful but vacuous type who’s getting bored with hosting her friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan), a terminal trembler. Felix’s emotionally unstable sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) has the habit of falling for all of her brother’s houseguests. Only Farleigh, also in residence, is hostile, though others in the family’s large circle also look upon him with a measure of disdain. Meanwhile butler Duncan (Paul Rhys) looms over him, ever vigilant and apparently ever present, perhaps afraid he’ll steal the silver or something more precious.
Oliver clearly relishes the oddball opulence of Saltburn, which he takes in as he ambles about the place. He also expresses his obsession with Felix in ways that will disgust some viewers—like secretly lapping up the remnants of the water from the tub in which he’s just bathed—and more. The rivalry between him and Farleigh finally leads to a showdown, but Felix finally comes to realize the depths of Oliver’s neediness only when he arranges a meeting with his friend’s widowed mother. The result is an estrangement between them that reaches a resolution at an extravagant birthday party for Oliver that the family has arranged on the estate grounds. The fate of the Catton clan is gradually revealed and Oliver’s real purpose emerges.
One will detect the influence of other sources beyond Waugh in Fennell’s screenplay, including such an unlikely one as Robert Hamer’s “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” albeit in a far sourer mode. Yet she chooses to present her work as something terribly provocative and outrageous by choreographing it in lurid tones and jarring rhythms, a project her collaborators—production designer Suzie Davies, costumer Sophie Canale, cinematographer Linus Sandgren (shooting in the boxy Academy format), editor Victoria Boydell and composer Anthony Willis—eagerly join in. Yet while the result is visually striking, it’s also deliberately unattractive—a commentary, no doubt, on the essential ugliness of the unbridled class elitism and social striving the characters variously represent.
The cast certainly throw themselves into realizing Fennell’s vision. Never before has even Grant twittered so flamboyantly, and Mulligan exults in her “poor Pamela” persona, which might have stepped out of the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery, while Oliver plays distractedness to the full. Pike fares better as the emptily elegant Elsbeth, and Elordi even more so as a supremely confident scion of privilege. As for Keoghan, he gleefully embraces scenes that many actors would blanch at doing, and lots of viewers will blanch at watching. Yet he’s hobbled by the fact that despite the explanations Fennell eventually lays out about him, Oliver never becomes a psychologically convincing whole; he acts from moment to moment as the plot turns demand, and the threads never fully add up. Like the film as a whole, Quick remains an artificial construct.
Of course, as a satire of wealth, privilege, and ambition “Saltburn” isn’t meant to be persuasive on any sort of realistic level. It is intended to be clever, though, and it’s there that it finally fails.