Writer/Director Emerald Fennell came out of the gate with a bang with her Oscar winning film Promising Young Woman. It was easily my favorite film of 2020. So I was excited to see where Fennell would go next. With Saltburn, she is still using shock value to move her story forward, and it works some of the time, but isn’t enough to keep the audience from noticing the lack of a coherent narrative. Sadly, all the frequently fun twists and turns that her script takes don’t lead to a satisfying destination.
The film is set in England, beginning at Oxford and then retiring to a mansion in the country where the majority of the action takes place. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is a smart working class freshman surrounded by a lot of très upper-crust students at his college. And the class difference is palpable. But after he helps out one of the other students, the handsome and wealthy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, Priscilla, “Euphoria”) who’s the object of his obsession, he’s invited into the inner circle. And before you can sneeze, summer comes and Felix has invited Oliver to stay at his house in the country. And that house is a Bridgerton/Downtown Abbey country estate.
Felix’s family is a caricature of the British aristocracy. His parents Sir James (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Withnail and I) and Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike, A Private War, Gone Girl) are somewhat befuddled by the presence of someone like Oliver. His sister Venetia is a bulimic, entitled twat. But he’s determined to win them over, one by one, which he does. The only fly in the ointment is Felix’s American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, Midsommar) who resents the attention Oliver is getting from everyone and tries to get rid of him. But his plan backfires resulting in his own banishment.
Throughout the film Oliver is obsessing with Felix, but he’s not above using sex to manipulate the situation, with Venetia, with Farleigh, even with Elspeth, just never with the object of his affection. But when the family plans a huge birthday party for Oliver, a surprise (no spoilers) turns everything upside down and leads to that less than satisfactory ending.
The film has a lot going for it. At the top of the list is the acting. Keoghan moves easily from innocent to sinister and back, and Grant and Pike are perfect as the rich but vacant couple. The script is a satirical mishmash of Downton Abbey and The Talented Mr. Ripley with a side of soft porn. There are some funny bits about the vacuousness of the aristocracy and class warfare. And the first two thirds of the film are a lot of fun and tense at times. But then it takes a turn and it seems Fennell could not figure out how to maintain the tone she’d created. Nevertheless, she’s a filmmaker to keep watching since she’s willing to push the envelope. Gotta respect that!
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I get why this film is divisive. Simply put — too dark and out there for my taste. -hb]
In theaters now. On Amazon in the not too distant future.