One could be forgiven for walking away from Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn traumatized. However, that is not a sleight or a conceit on the part of the film. We each bring our own experiences to bear when watching a movie, our own vulnerabilities. We want to be entertained, and Fennell accomplishes that feat in spades.
The traumatized feeling comes from several sources, namely a gorgeous and gregarious Oliver Quick, played by the handsome Barry Keoghan, who stunned audiences last year with his performance in The Banshees of Inisherin, who unassumingly begins his college career while trying to get the attention of Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton, the most popular guy on campus.
Gee, I thought popularity contests ended in high school, no?
Apparently not, as the only one whose attention Oliver catches is that of the demanding Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell). Never mind that, though, there’s more to this tale. Eventually Oliver catches Felix’s attention. Within their interactions, Keoghan and Elordi are flirtatious enough that Fennell’s story becomes highly suggestive. Adding to that is Archie Madekwe’s sublime performance as Farleigh, Felix’s cousin.
Fennell conveys an unexpected intellect in each character as they maneuver through their college classes and social interactions, enough that Felix takes Oliver in during their school break. Tension builds between the characters’ surfaces but is quickly dismissed as Oliver is brought to Saltburn, an estate in the English countryside with copious amounts of adolescent testosterone to fill a gay drama on Logo or a certain Luca Guadagnino film from a few years back. Saltburn amplifies both.
It was a welcomed distraction as we are introduced to the rest of Felix’s family – the whip-smart Rosamund Pike’s Elisabeth, Richard E. Grant’s delicious James, the devious Venetia played by Allison Oliver, and the poor dear friend, Pamela, played by Cary Mulligan.
Fennell gives each character enough coverage that you get to know them and that you appreciate the dark humor and impact they have on Oliver and on them. And, as the story develops, one is left questioning just whose game this really is. As awkward as Keoghan comes across, he’s also a chameleon of an actor, a perfect fit with Saltburn. Similarly, Elordi plays distant exceptionally well, but he’s also assuming and direct, two character traits that favor his performance as Felix, which was significantly better than his performance as Elvis in the dreadful Priscilla. Madekwe is the lynchpin in these proceedings as we see the family slowly fall apart, and Oliver’s idiosyncratic nature plays its hand.
Fennell’s story “gives” itself away at a certain point while still leaving one questioning its intent. Saltburn may not blaze new trails regarding its themes or plot. Still, the character’s intents and shifting realities keep us on our proverbial toes enough that the writer-director’s sophomore film takes full advantage of its troupe. Much like last year’s Women Talking, if nominations were to occur now, Saltburn would easily earn an ensemble award as the dark humor slowly crushes an elite family to pieces.
On a technical level, Fennell has surrounded herself with a well-established troupe of confident craftspeople; Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, brilliantly shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, captures the closed-in, psychotic nature of Oliver, Felix, Elisabeth, James, Farleigh and Venetia. His coverage of the more expansive cast is as brilliant as the indulgent moments where Oliver . . . ummmm expresses his tendencies; the display of those tendencies was the highlight of this critic’s eye. Much of the film was shot at night or shrouded in a haze or fog, but each moment captured by Sandgren was beautiful. Adding to the film’s nature is Victoria Boydell’s jolting editing. Because the story is told through Oliver’s psychological trauma, events happen in a rapid-fire style, offering yet another layer to Saltburn.
While Saltburn will divide audiences, one thing is for sure: Emerald Fennell is in a class of her own, as are Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, and Archie Madekwe. The entire ensemble makes the story work, but Keoghan’s performance drives this “Oliver Twixt” story right over the edge and is a strong contender for this critic’s top 10 of 2023.