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Released 2023. Director: Emerald Fennell

I SUPPOSE THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WILL STOP AT NOTHING if they really want something bad enough. Not even murder. People like gentle and unassertive Oliver Quick, who arrives at Oxford University on a scholarship and becomes drawn to fellow student Felix Catton. Handsome, confident, popular, taller and much, much richer, Felix comes from aristocracy whereas Oliver’s parents are mired in substance abuse and mental health issues, or so he says. Felix invites Oliver to spend summer in his family’s sprawling country estate Saltburn. Felix’s sister Venetia takes a liking to the virginal boy and a triangle of sorts develops.

If you think this reminds you of Brideshead Revisited, you’re absolutely right. Neither an update nor a homage to the classic by Evelyn Waugh, Saltburn also carries imprints from Rebecca, The Servant, The Great Gatsby, The Handmaiden and Cruel Intentions, listed by Emerald Fennell as influences on her sophomore endeavour. To that list I would also add The Talented Mr Ripley.

Like Matt Damon’s gifted fraudster in that movie, Oliver aspires for a much higher position in life and when the invitation arrives, he seizes the golden opportunity to reinvent himself. His attraction towards Felix goes beyond physical desire to an identity and entitlement he craves.

Saltburn can obviously also be examined through other lenses including class rebellion, the vapidness of the idle rich, the superficial charity towards the less privileged, male sexuality as an expression of power, or simply obsession and greed.

Inside the palatial home decorated with antiques and other priced possessions in every corner with its residents dressed in black tie for family dinner, Saltburn pulses with a provocative energy. Fennell sets up a few scenes guaranteed to jolt the dozing back to living daylight. One involves menstrual blood, another one shows what Oliver does with Felix’s bath water, and one more that takes place at a grave. The last of those is so evidently calculated to shock. Some might defend it as a sensational display of Oliver’s state of mind; to me that’s Fennell overindulging her appetite for outrage.

There is not a single likeable person in the Catton household. Richard E Grant’s Sir James is an ineffectual lord of the manor whose passion is hosting parties. Rosamund Pike’s scene-stealing Lady Elspeth has some of the best lines because she’s condescending in an entertaining fashion. Jacob Elordi’s Felix uses his charm to tease while offering a friendship of surface value. Alison Oliver‘s Venetia thinks she spots an easy target in Oliver. Archie Madakwe’s Farleigh is the cousin who feels threatened by an outsider gaining favour. Even the butler is snobbish.

That said, none deserves what’s to become of them. They can be mean and shallow, but they are not immoral or evil. By subjecting them to their eventual fate, Fennell reduces them to caricatures to punish.

For most of the movie our sympathy is reserved for Oliver, the moneyless boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam, the boy who’s thoughtful and polite in the company of brassy and presumptuous upper-class twats, until it’s turned. Oliver is not who he makes out to be. He’s a liar and soon, a murderer. He’s devious, callous, has no compunction and is prepared to take years to reach his ultimate goal – by laying claim to Saltburn, eliminating its successor one by one. Barry Keoghan is convincing as pre-revelation Oliver when he brings the innocence of a clingy lost kitten to fool the unsuspected. After his own lies are exposed and his scheme begins to take shape, Barry is less credible as a serial killer.

Fennell’s last movie Promising Young Woman (for which she won an Oscar for Original Screenplay) deals with rage and justice. Carey Mulligan’s character dispenses some painful lessons as payback for sexual assault. In Saltburn, the crimes go unpunished and the perpetrator is rewarded and completely, unsubtly, shamelessly liberated. Edgy maybe, but there’s no psychological depth as Oliver is ultimately soulless in his inability to develop beyond the same level of (im)maturity. Even if you take it as a dark comedy, Saltburn still leaves an unpleasant after taste, and it’s not on account of the bath water.

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1 Comment

Feb 07

Spot on review. My first thought after watching was The talented Mr Ripley.

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