Emerald Fennels’ SaltBurn pokes gloriously dark fun at the ultra-elite, combining well written dialogue with some of the most beautiful cinematography to hit our screens this year.
Fennel’s second directorial venture takes us on a journey of outsider Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) and Felix Catton unlikely friendship. The duo meet at Oxford University in their first year; establishing Oliver as an outsider to the British social elite, Felix takes pity upon Quick’s tragic homelife (consisting of neglecting and drug-addled parents) and offers him a place to stay over the summer break following the untimely death of Oliver’s father. Felix’s ‘place’, it turns out, is a stalely home in Saltburn, North Yorkshire. After some initial teething problems, Oliver falls head first into the strange world of English Aristocracy.
Fennel is no stranger to criticising society’s untouchable (see her first film ‘Promising Young Woman’), this shows spectacularly within the dry humour spattered throughout the screenplay – special credit needs to be given here to Rosamund Pike’s supporting role as Felix’s mother. This snide attitude towards aristocracies’ laissez-faire attitude to real-world problems continues through the physical jokes placed strategically throughout the film too. Fennel has a real talent for ‘showing’, rather than ‘telling’ the narrative, driving the plot forward making the story delightfully paced.
On this topic, you may have already been bombarded by ‘fan-cams’ of the Saltburn cast, draped seductively over antique furniture. I am pleased to say there is plenty more content within the film itself, each shot more beautifully staged than the last, with the incredibly talented actors complimenting each other and the script wonderfully. Each visual motif is perfectly attended too, and each metaphor is wrapped up a delivered to the audience before the finale. It is clear inspiration was taken from American Modern Classics lamenting the Lost Generation, with a specific nod to Fitzgerald’s trademark grandeur and demise in Gatsby.
I could go on here about Keoghan’s and Elordi’s performances here for paragraphs, but I’ll keep things short by mentioning how delightful it is to see Keoghan fully cemented into a leading role, and that Elordi’s accent and upper class demeaner was so accurate it ignited a special rage within me that was definitely intended by the director. The sexual tension was well placed and weaved itself perfectly into the struggle for power, lifestyle, and wealth that terrorises Keoghan’s character.
SPOILER: I will preface that I took issue with the ‘twist’ in the plot. After taking a call from Oliver’s mother, Felix drives them both to visit Oliver’s parents for his birthday, whereupon he finds that Oliver has lied about his upbringing and instead has a rather comfy middle-class background. As the receiver of stories from fleeting interactions with individuals at university who claim they’re ‘working class’s whilst having attending private schools without financial assistance and own holiday homes in other continents, this rubbed me the wrong way. However, this is simply personal preference.
This doesn’t take away from the movie itself too much overall, though. If you’re a fan of beautiful people in beautiful films that do terrible things, Saltburn is for you.
By Grace Sanders – Film Critic & Student Pages Podcast Host
SaltBurn was definitely one of a kind from the selection of great films we’ve seen in 2023. The Emerald Fennel film was well written, stunning cinematography and with its cultivated dry sense of British humour it was very entertaining. After the success of her directorial debut in ‘Promising Women’ featuring Florence Pugh, Saltburn served as another interesting feature. We will be going into some spoilers towards the end of this review.
We are introduced to Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) accustomed to feeling like an outcast and judged amongst the students of Oxford University. He forms an unexpected friendship with the popular Felix Catton. His pity for Oliver’s supposed difficult home-life, with his drug obsessed mother neglecting him and the untimely death of his father, he offers Oliver to stay over at his home for the summer break. Fennel’s way of juxtaposing these characters, through Oliver’s journey is where the story truly begins. As he enters that strange British aristocratic living through the lens of the Catton family.
Felix resides in Saltburn, North Yorkshire, but in a very wealthy living that is. Fennel’s casting for these characters were so brilliantly selected as well as the supporting cast, Keoghan and Elordi’s pairing was great chemistry and most of the gfunniest lines came from Felix’s mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike) her perfect delivery promoted most natural laughter amongst the audience. Honourable mentions to Pamela and Sir James. The plot itself is driven so well by Fennel’s way of structuring that aristocratic setting in Oliver’s journey, to the transitioning of that snobbery upper class attitude, that we see Felix’s family use humour complaining about the real world problems.
Along with the crazed side of Oliver, which we see slowly unraveling through the sheer strangeness in his personality and obsession for Felix. In turn, the humour is set well enough so that pacing works very well throughout the movie. In terms of visuals, this was nothing short of stunning cinematography and landscapes that we see being used in scenes. The combination of wonderful talent and well-written script thrives together synonymously. Certain aspects of the film were seductive and of sexual nature, which brought out some of the most intense scenes with Oliver, as he interacts with different characters. You could feel the way in which these strange desires of Oliver were a mere delusion of his own life. To summarise how the twist at the end made me feel – I was half surprised but at the same time I wasn’t. Throughout the film you can sense that sheer character deterioration from Oliver.
The well placed opportunities in which he had a moment with each family member he was able to kill was very disturbing. How Felix could not see Oliver’s pathological side was strange. Especially when he learned the truth about Oliver’s home life from when he met the parents, realising he lived a fair middle-classed living, was that not enough to never see him again ? As at that point the friendship was null and why did the party happen despite that? Furthermore, I thought from the moment his interaction with Venetia in the bath, as she spelled hate towards Oliver and how his unexpected placing in there home was accepted by them all made me think Oliver was going to kill her there and then. I do think that ending was left open for a sequel; it could serve a bigger story for Oliver, especially after he acquires the life assets of Felix’s family.
Overall, I really enjoyed Saltburn! It was a ball of fun, so much to enjoy with such a great selection of talent, mixed with a brilliant script. Which is why I think it’s easily one of the best thriller dramas of 2023. Fennel’s continued success can only hope to bring more of these fantastic feats! 4/5
By Shamoon Saeed – Pop Culture Features Editor