Saltburn is a 2023 psychological thriller from critically acclaimed director Emerald Fennell, most known for her film Promising Young Woman. Starring Barry Keoghan as main character Oliver, the film explores themes such as obsession, greed and lust.
Let me preface by saying that everything you think Saltburn is going to be, it’s not. I had thought that the film would bare similarities to films such as Call Me by Your Name, mistakenly believing the film to be a romance. It isn’t.
Aesthetically, there are similarities between the two – particularly in scenes shot on the Saltburn estate, due in part to the summer heat and also the costumes worn by the characters. Otherwise, there was not one moment in the film that is easily predictable to the viewer, it is in fact so wildly unpredictable that for half of the film my jaw was dropped, and my eyebrows furrowed.
Keoghan’s performance is thrilling, and, above all, he should be accredited for his ability to make Oliver’s character possibly the most disturbing in recent cinema. Seemingly ordinary at the beginning of the film, time soon reveals the deeper, darker depths of his character. The shock of certain scenes makes your stomach turn and mouth widen, it’s truly hard to watch.
Oliver is a first year at Oxford University and, coming from the Northern Town of Prescot, cannot rely on his trust fund like the other students. He struggles to make friends at first and takes on the role of an outcast. That is until, of course, he acquaints himself with the handsome, popular and most importantly, rich, Felix, who invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family home (mansion) in the countryside.
The alluring Felix is played by Australian actor Jacob Elordi, who is immediately positioned as an object of lust and desire. The film opens with a montage of shots from Oliver’s perspective, and throughout the film we often only see him through these POV shots. This means that we perceive him in the same way Oliver does, which is key in forming audience reactions to the characters on screen.
Despite the somewhat sinister undertones and some very uncomfortable scenes, the film is also very comical. Though not many people in the cinema laughed with me, I can appreciate Fennell’s blunt way of addressing humour throughout the film. It is somewhat dry but perfectly timed and allows us to get to know the personalities of the characters.
In many ways, the film was great. The beautiful cinematography paired with the screenplay and the cast’s acting abilities make it a very enjoyable watch. They also help to distract the audience from hints leading up to what would otherwise be fairly predictable plot twists, making them all the more effective.
This is not to say the film was without its faults. In many ways, it could be considered more technically refined than Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman, which already showed great promise for the director’s career.
However, there are moments in the film that seem pointless. They make the film feel much longer, creating a distance between viewers and the film. After such a big lead up to the plot reveal, the ending seems rushed, and I can’t help but think that Fennell focused too much on irrelevant points and did not spare time for those that would enhance the ending.
In addition to this, for a film that is focusing on the behaviours and roles of the rich members of society, Saltburn fails to make any form of clear criticism on it.
The Catton family are in many ways unlikeable and abusive with their power, creating a very odd dynamic between themselves and other secondary characters such as Farleigh (Archie Medekwe), who is their own nephew.
However, this is undermined by other scenes where Oliver’s apparent idolisation of the family takes over the audience, making them long to be a part of it. Any criticism of class and the elite is therefore weak, and half hearted, making me question whether this was even Fennell’s intention at all.
Despite this, Saltburn was in all a very enjoyable watch, and created a very rare feeling composed of disgust, awe and shock. It is most likely best to watch the film with as little prior knowledge as possible. With captivating performances from all of the cast, Saltburn is a film that will have you either on the edge of your seat or cowering away from the screen at the more hard-to-watch sequences.
Feature Image credit: MGM Amazon Studios