Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan
Director: Emerald Fennell
There is a tendency in cinema to dismiss the British aristocracy as a relic of the past. However, the reality is that the British Upper Class is alive and well, draining enormous amounts of the country’s resources, living the kind of life that most people could only dream of. Despite its 2005 setting, Saltburn serves as a bold illustration of the movers and shakers right at the top of British society today, whose exclusivity and tremendous price tag makes it a world entirely impossible to infiltrate. Except this sophomore film from director Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) is about someone doing exactly that.
Oliver (Keoghan – The Banshees Of Inishirin, Dunkirk) is a fresher at Oxford University. From Merseyside, he’s there on a scholarship and finds it difficult to mix with the phalanx of public school cronies, who look down on him as a distasteful charity case. However, when Oliver helps the handsome Felix (Elordi – Priscilla, Euphoria) with a flat tyre, the latter allows him into his social circle and before long, the two are firm friends. And then, Oliver is invited to stay with Felix over the summer at their vast palatial estate, Saltburn.
The film’s first act is very much about establishing the class divide between Oliver and Felix, but as soon as the pair arrive at the manor, the film gets the wind in its sails. The family are every bit as snobbish, arrogant and wasteful as you’d expect, name-dropping their famous friends and pretending to be philanthropic. His sister (Oliver) is spoilt, over-sexualised and wearing an eating disorder like a badge of honour. His cousin (Madekwe - Midsommar, Gran Turismo) is a crass American, masking his cruel manipulation with volatile sass. His father (Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me, Withnail & I) is an aesthete, only interested in the fabric of his possessions, while his mother – in a remarkable performance by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, I Care A Lot) – is a flighty socialite who hides her elitism behind the mask of kindness.
What follows becomes an increasing web of deceit and manipulation, with Oliver trying to forge connections – personal and sexual – with the family that has the potential to change his life. Initially overawed by the magnitude of their wealth, it isn’t long before he is entangled as they are. But at every juncture, he is reminded again and again where he came from and why is there. Above all else, this is a film about the class system; the UK is a country, after all, where social mobility only goes so far, with the aristocracy completely impenetrable.
Keoghan is utterly resplendent in this part. Cast as the snake-like social climber, he moulds himself like water to the person he’s with, but it’s only when he’s alone that we see the real him. And it’s in these moments that the film delivers its biggest jolts; scenes in the bathroom and at a graveside are ones that will go down in infamy for their sheer shock-factor. His face is utterly malleable; sometimes it is bathed in innocence, while others betray an arresting cunning that is difficult to truly fathom. This dark character is an absolute triumph, with his joyful final moments the perfect cherry on top of the role-of-a-lifetime.
The sheer hedonism on display is a real treat too. With Gatsby levels of flashy excess, we see this mausoleum of a home transformed into twenty-first century decadence as these bright young things frolic and cavort with their friends. Bathed in the scorching summer heat, their days are spent basking in the grounds of their palace, while nights are spent dining and drinking. And when they throw a costume party for Oliver’s birthday, the resulting twenty minutes are like a wild and surreal editorial straight from the pages of Vogue. This is real twenty-first century wealth, with a generation of youngsters flashing their utterly ginormous inheritance. And with truly masterful cinematography, it looks breath-taking on screen.
Saltburn is every bit as good as Fennell’s Oscar-winning debut, if not better. This luscious movie is reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann or Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, but manages a really shrewd commentary on the British class system while telling a gripping story too. With excellent acting, arresting visuals and art direction to die for, this is one of the most original movies to be released in years. And its soundtrack is wonderful too. You simply have to see Saltburn. And on as big a screen as possible.
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Amazon MGM