Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, Paul Rhys, Richard E. Grant
Director: Emerald Fennell
Runtime: 131 mins
Emerald Fennell’s sophomore outing after her outrageous ‘Promising Young Woman’ did the awards rounds bagging several coveted trophies along the way, is a darkly humorous and scathingly vicious hit on the English aristocracy.
A scholarship student who buys his clothes from Oxfam, Oliver (Barry Keoghan) arrives at Oxford University where he sticks out like a sore thumb. An orchestrated accidental meeting with Home Counties aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) gives him an ‘in’ into aristocratic life. Felix invites him to his family’s country home – the titular one. Oliver meets Felix’s family of stereotypical English aristocrats (all eccentrics) – an altogether vague mother (Rosamund Pike), a crazy father (Richard E. Grant), a nymphomanic sister, and an American cousin (Archie Madekwe), and though Oliver gets to frolic freely with his dark obsessions he feels even more out-of-place than he was at Oxford. Oliver eventually becomes used to life at Saltburn but a chance discovery exposing his lies and the subsequent expulsion from his throne of grace sets the darkness within to come out in glorious detail.
This film may not be original as it has shades of ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ ‘Wild Things’ and ‘The Riot Club’ patterned into it’s screenplay but it is unique because of how Fennell uses acerbic dark humor to detonate the bomb that lies within. This is a twisted tale of obsession and excess that derives its goodies from the darkest black comedy. Oliver`s motives are ambiguous and, the vein of comedy is so rich that you can’t stop laughing even when the darkness seeps through.
The narrative goes bold, provocative, and funny as decadence and disaster unfold at Saltburn, buoyed by ace performances that deliver the booty with sublime results. The boldness in narration is exemplified by the scene in which Oliver is shown drinking bathwater into which Felix has just ejaculated and there’s even one where he masturbates on the grave. Fennell even justifies a lengthy sequence during which Oliver dances nude to ‘Murder on the Dance Floor,’ quite brilliantly. Fennell’s scripts have shock value and this one is no different. She showcases the aristocrats as people with feelings. They may be superior but not nasty. They are also kind enough to give a party to honor Oliver’s birthday after having learned that he just lost his father. Fennell uses their flaws to show us that the financially blessed too are driven by primal needs. Oliver’s cringe-inducing, homoerotic, and kinky behavior on display is what shocks you the most here.
Jacob Elordi who is Australian/Spanish does well to fit into the English aristocracy he is part of in reel life, and Keoghan makes a terrifically daring impoverished English Oliver despite being Irish in real life. Even Archie Madekwe does ‘spaced-out’ beautifully as the American cousin. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant together send up some hilarity with their uppity manners and foppish pronouncements.
The supporting players have their funny moments too. Carey Mulligan is a stand-out as a drug-addled socialite and Paul Rhys makes for a to-the-manner-born, straight-laced butler.
The Oscar-winning director of ‘Promising Young Woman’ makes the ‘Saltburn’ experience feel stunning. Emerald Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren make every scene visually striking and therefore gratifying. Her screenplay has almost every sequence embedded with either a joke or biting sarcasm. This movie is a sexually charged reckoning about privilege and even provides some facile insight into the socio-pathology of the class divide – despite careening into utter ridiculousness en route to its preordained conclusion.