After a decade of acting credits under her belt and a considerable amount of time spent in the Killing Eve writer’s room, Emerald Fennell made her directorial debut with 2020’s Promising Young Woman. The film proved to be a bold testament to the gender politics of modern times and was met with a divisive response as a result. Despite sparking endless debates, Fennell’s first venture behind the camera as a director resulted in her first Oscar nomination and win for Best Original Screenplay. Her sophomore feature, Saltburn, has been highly anticipated ever since some of the industry’s finest young talent joined the project. Co-produced with Barbie alum Margot Robbie and Josey McNamara, Saltburn is an introspective study on the by-products of the British class system. Moreso, it’s an examination of the birth of a new British millennia, otherwise known as the Noughties.
As the summer of 2003 draws to a close, student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) begins a new chapter of his life at Oxford University. Seemingly timid and rather awkward, he initially seems like a college outcast. For better or worse, that’s about to change. From afar he observes a popular clique and eventually weasels his way in after lending his bike to the group’s most admired member, the aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). From that point on, an unlikely friendship between the two boys, who have each lived polar opposite lives, blossoms. Oliver confides in Felix about his rocky upbringing and family tragedy which leads to what is seemingly the invitation of a lifetime, an unforgettable summer of luxury and extravagance at the countryside Catton family estate, Saltburn.
The capacious manor is a character in and of itself, whose subtly sinister vitality ceaselessly looms over each occupant’s head. As soon as he arrives, Oliver must quickly adapt to an unfamiliar, conceited lifestyle in order to navigate relations with Felix’s eccentric family, including his mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and cousin turned university coursemate Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). Caught in the grasp of lurking ominosity and sensual lust, at times it’s difficult to determine whether each of these peculiar individuals is manipulating each other, or themselves.
The majority of the film’s drawbacks stem from Emerald Fennell’s screenplay. After overcoming an initially inconsistent pace, Saltburn grows into itself in the second act. From here, it cannot be denied how amusing it can be, especially after the movie swiftly executes an unexpected twist. However, it’s not too soon before it grows frivolous again and is stifled by the overuse of melodrama, almost like it’s meant to invoke a cheap fleeting reaction from the audience. Without spoiling anything, Fennell hyper-fixates on the physical infatuation between the people at Saltburn instead of spending any time exploring the psychological aspects of lust. In return, the plot misses out on the emotional enrichment that it sorely needs. Sometimes less is more, and in this case, it would have prevented a viewing expereince that often feels quite hollow.
The early noughties nostalgia is rampantly immersive in Saltburn, from the recognizable needle drops to the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio that is indicative of the time period. The visuals contrived by La La Land and No Time to Die cinematographer Linus Sandgren are ravishing throughout. Many of the most striking shots feature Oliver’s reflections, a metaphorical subtext that is obviously on the nose in hindsight but is still evidence of the film’s meticulous craftsmanship.
While some decisions are clearly deliberate in a constructive manner, others feel wildly questionable. In crucial scenes where Oliver and Felix begin forming a bond, clubbing scenes featuring the two boys are frequently cut back and forth to, disrupting the exposition that deserves some degree of restraint. Furthermore, using face masks on background actors to emphasize a time jump to some point in the 2020s during the COVID-19 pandemic is intensely distracting, especially when hairstyling alone does the job far more deftly.
As a seasoned actress herself, it’s no surprise that filmmaker Emerald Fennell possesses an undeniable ability to conjure stellar performances out of her cast. Barry Keoghan’s Oliver leads the entire narrative, a mammoth task which he escapes from nearly scott-free. Keoghan captures the multifaceted nature of a young man who is far more than what meets the eye. Ultimately, it is the script that derails the gratifyingly slow burn of his character arc rather than the performance itself. Keoghan and Jacob Elordi, who is having a big year by also starring in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla as Elvis Presley, exhibit a spirited dynamic together. His turnout as Felix nails the essence (and accent) of a British posh boy, one that you could track down at almost any prestigious English university. Oozing pure charm and charisma, Elordi further proves his indisputable star power.
Acting icons Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant execute witty comedy and disturbing stoicism with absolute ease. Pike, in her first feature film role since 2020’s I Care a Lot, is the cast member who gets treated most favorably by Fennell’s writing. Hot off the heels of leading Sony’s Gran Turismo, Archie Madekwe evidently understands how to captivate an audience in Saltburn, as does Alison Oliver. Though their roles are miniscule, a nearly unrecognizable Ewan Mitchell and Promising Young Woman star Carey Mulligan inject the movie with much-needed momentum. The remarkable cast ensemble is what saves Saltburn at the end of the day.
There is no question that Saltburn provides an engaging and entertaining mystery, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this story thinks it’s far smarter than it actually is. In fully utilizing its stylish flare and top-class performances, the film desperately attempts to mask the fact that it’s simply a rehash of class examination that never even manages to formulate an argument for its motives. When all is said and done, and after an admittedly unforgettable final sequence, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s lack of commitment to making a true psychological thriller and muddy sentiments lead her sophomore feature to crumble under an ideologically investigative eye.