Emerald Fennell‘s Saltburn delivers as a follow-up to her socially relevant Promising Young Woman with a wickedly character-lead performance by Barry Keoghan.
Keoghan, following his awards season success in Martin McDonagh‘s The Banshees of Inisherin, maintains his reputation as a triumphant actor to mould his delivery and his identity to fit its setting, even though the broader story may have benefited from a different direction to create a more robust resolution.
Saltburn was screened as part of the official selection of the BFI London Film Festival 2023.
In Saltburn, Keoghan’s character, Ollie Quick, is a fresh-faced mid-2000s collegiate at Oxford University. Socially outcast, a mere shell of a person, Keoghan’s adaptability comes into full force as here he learns that to survive is only for the most determined.
Introducing himself as a child from a broken family, one of abuse and substance addiction, Ollie’s reclusive and hesitancy becomes immediately contextualised as he finds solace voyeuristically projecting ideations of belonging onto his peers. Slowly adjusting and warming to an accepting, close-knit community, albeit interwoven with elitism and snobbery, Ollie starts an infatuation with a fellow student.
Growing into lust, Ollie’s fascination for Felix (Jacob Elordi) begins a gorgeous unravelling of Ollie’s psyche. Shallow depth of field camerawork and light string scores invoke feelings of Call Me By Your Name as he acts on this interest, forming a friendship with the well-spoken, scruffy gentry.
After Ollie grieves the loss of his father, he stays with Felix at his family home in Saltburn. A grand castle spread across an isolated estate fills the screen, Keoghan minuscule in comparison.
Where Felix may make audiences weary, his wider family of father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) are worse. Terrifyingly accurate presentations of the world of the upper class, with E. Grant specifically clearly having the most fun throughout his time creating a satirical representation of the wealthy. It’s here, through this satire, that Saltburn finds its footing. Audiences familiar with Promising Young Women will expect a social commentary, and Fennell attempts to deliver.
The film’s cinematic language demonstrates a knowledgeable understanding of the coming-of-age, forbidden love angle, where Keoghan’s interest teeters at first, then fully leans into perversion. Fennell is unquestionably establishing herself as a filmmaker to question our limits and expectations of boundaries. It’s also through the collaborative camera work by La La Land‘s cinematographer Linus Sandgren that demonstrates a fractious identity: Keoghan is forever looking in, or metaphorically divided, either by horizons or reflections, reinforcing that his welcoming into Felix’s family is seen always with distance.
Conceptually, it aims to echo a British equivalence of Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning ‘Parasite‘, where class and comfort become a self-sacrificial, all-consuming temptation that breeds evil.
Ironically screened as the Opening Night film for the London Film Festival, Saltburn‘s significance ties in poignantly with the last date of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, and the egregious comments made by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier in the day, with a classist fetishism mirrored through Ollie and Felix’s relationship as much as the government’s perspective of wealth.
Despite all this, Saltburn‘s commentating and metaphoric suggestions of the British class system are consistently strong, with its only failing being its narrative direction. As described, the film presents a tender coming of age. However, its dialogue, mise-en-scène, and imagery indicated a supernatural convention connotating werewolves and the transformation as seen commonly in gothic literature.
Shots of Alison Oliver’s incisors glean in the moonlight, her face contorting into an animalistic howl. Conversations about lunar phases, bloodied intimacy, as if riffing ‘Ginger Snaps‘, and the drinking of bodily remnants suggest Keoghan’s presence at the stately home is more than out of kindness.
More so still, the inclusion of family friends, who, like Keoghan’s Ollie, have personal or financial afflictions, like Pamela (Carey Mulligan), as well as a menacing Renfield-styled butler constantly suggested that the behind-closed-doors classism wasn’t the only kept secret in the Saltburn residency.
Saltburn is a cinematic delight, visually enriching and culturally relevant. A considered choice to open the festival and one that disenfranchised audiences will happily engage with as austerity is continually, and rightfully, challenged.
Saltburn is screening as part of the programme for the BFI London Film Festival and will play in select cinemas from 17 November.