On Saturday night, a few friends and I went along to the newly renovated Hyde Park Picture house to sit down for a viewing of ‘Saltburn’, directed by Emerald Fennel. Only having seen the trailer prior to viewing the film, I believed I was in for an artistically shot class-satire, maybe with a few twists and an ‘eat-the-rich’ punchline. Whilst my assumptions weren’t entirely misplaced, I could not have expected what came next.
The film opens with a monologue from our narrator Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan), depicted as a well-groomed adult and insistently stating that he “Was not in love with him” — with the ‘him’ in question being one Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi), a beautiful, peer-worshipped aristocrat. After an appetising montage of Elordi puffing on cigarettes and lounging in long grass, we are afforded our first jump back in the film’s timeline to the beginnings of the academic year at Oxford University. At this stage Keoghan’s Oliver Quick is an awkward, newly enrolled student reading English at the prestigious Oxford University. He is quiet, dedicated, and absolutely infatuated with Felix (Elordi), despite being sneered at by his contemporaries for his background and for being the scholarship student. He can be seen lurking on the sidelines of social interactions, an outsider gazing in, the lonely outcast amongst the
privileged and aloof. Even after he is socially adopted by the generous Felix, he often remains introspective and is only ever in the full throes of conversation with Felix himself.
Oliver eventually gets invited to Felix’s sprawling estate for the summer, where he is thrust into the throngs of an eccentric, aristocratic family that drape themselves across a grandiose estate, a setting in which Oliver sticks out like a sore thumb. Unequipped to handle the etiquettes of the upper class, Keoghan lumbers awkwardly through this uncharted territory—until a luscious montage of hedonistic summer activities plays, including drunkenly playing tennis in black tie and lounging naked in fields, framed by MGMT’s ‘Time to Pretend’. This suggests Oliver will break the class mould and at last become comfortable around these larger-than-life characters. However, we are only allowed to bask in this aestheticised bliss for a short while before Oliver’s true nature begins to show.
Keoghan has been praised for his stunning ability to adopt the role of a “freaky little guy” as a friend of mine (eloquently) put it. Whilst this is a strange congratulation, Keoghan is utterly compelling in the delivery of his Jekyll-and Hyde-esque character. He flits between being an unassuming, lower-class outlander, to a sinister, controlled antagonist, burrowing into the epicentre of his hosts’ world.
‘Saltburn’ is full of quippy one liners that soothe the audience in contrast to the undiluted horrors that unfurl in subsequent scenes. Rosamund Pike as ‘Elspeth Catton’ is undeniably divine and hilarious. The theatre is full of gasps, chuckles and groans that oddly seem to round out the show. The noise that is usually irritating to the average cinema goer is made somewhat comforting in the shared knowledge that everyone around you is just as shocked and enthralled as you are.
However, it’s depiction of era is somewhat haphazard. We see a welcome banner at the start of the film clearly stating “Welcome Class of 2006”, yet it was only when spontaneously recalling this fact that I would realise the film wasn’t set in the present-day. The general sense of era is also undermined by lazy corner-cutting, for example with “Low” by Flo Rida being performed during a karaoke scene, when the song didn’t come out until 2008. Whilst this isn’t a catastrophic error, the lack of grasp on the era is a let-down, and for a film with such a great soundtrack, the diegetic music not being era accurate is disorienting at best, and indolent at worst. Being so heavily weighted in ‘vibes’, it surprises me that the time period ‘vibe’ of this film wasn’t entirely nailed.
Many will have walked away from this film in a state of shock. However, are the wince-inducing visuals and exuberant mise-en-scène the result of Fennel’s veritable genius, or just a smokescreen for cheap-shot class jibes and unearthed textual potential? The use of increased red lighting throughout the film — most poignantly when Oliver is watching Felix in the bath and is bathed in a crimson glow, or when the curtains are drawn in the dining room, causing a flood of Kubrick-style drama — successfully magnifies how disturbed Oliver really is and the extent to which he has imposed himself upon the family. These scenes are almost drenched with blood and Oliver’s malevolent intent. The third act fully indulges in and emphasises the dark underbelly of the film, whereas the first two acts only dribble debauchery in fits and bursts. Perhaps this weighting is unbalanced, or perhaps it is artfully crafted to lather as much shock factor as possible into the final act. However, are the twists of the finale rushed, without enough foreshadowing? Or are Oliver’s subtle manipulations and splitting of character just enough to justify the end result?
The most effective twist was learning that Oliver’s character did not have the impoverished, rough background he’d had the Catton’s believe — which, frankly, was the sole source of their anthropological fascination with him — but rather that of a wealthy, upper-middle class family with a stable upbringing. This betrayal is itself shocking, but also unveils more layers to Oliver’s villainy, whilst simultaneously making his motivations that much shallower. No longer are the tired stereotypes of the demonised working-class the driving force of his dismantling of the elite: instead, it is just pure, trivial greed. The shallow feel of this plot twist and the film as a whole can be seen as the fault of unrealised potential, or suggested to be making a point in shallow-ness itself. The setting and the characters lack true depth. Even Oliver, as antagonist, has an underdeveloped psyche. The lack of interrogation into Oliver’s motivations lies somewhere between outright confusing and serving to make him that much more despicable and disturbing. He stands unjustifiably to simply gobble up the rich and spit out their bones before (quite literally) dancing on their graves.
In my opinion, whichever stance you take on Saltburn, as a film it was certainly enjoyable to consume. Us cinema-goers seemed to greedily lap up the lavish, flashy visuals and were stunned at Keoghan’s disarming debauchery (all whilst swooning any time Elordi was on screen). It’s a film that can be perceived as either a cinematic masterpiece, or an inconclusive class satire that leaves you unenthused. And yet, whether you loved it or hated it, thought it was brilliant or vapid, no one can stop talking about ‘Saltburn’, which—in my eyes—makes it a success.
Words: Imogen Williams, she/her