Emerald Fennell’s sophomore directorial venture, Saltburn, has had the internet on a chokehold. While some are in awe of its brilliantly aesthetic visuals and dark academic plot, others are left with a sense of dissatisfaction. Saltburn comes with the promise of a brilliant story that would be deliciously depraved and yet, scathingly critical. What it delivers, however, is questionable at best and disappointing, at worst.
From Oxford to Saltburn: Oliver Quick’s journey through opulence and deceit
Starring Euphoria heartthrob Jacob Elordi, and Barry Keoghan (of Banshees of Inisherin fame) as the leads, Saltburn follows Oliver Quick (Keoghan), a seemingly poor and socially awkward Oxford student who finds it difficult to fit in the glittering circles of his upper class classmates. But one day, he has a chance encounter with Felix Catton and ends up lending him his bicycle to get to class on time. They soon meet again at a dingy pub where Felix’s magnetism and beauty draws Oliver in. Despite what cliches might suggest however, Felix is a sweetheart, kind and somewhat ditzy. They become quick friends. Soon, Oliver receives news of his father’s passing away and is invited to spend the summer at the Catton family house named Saltburn.
From the moment Oliver enters Saltburn, there is something shifty about him. Although one can see he is trying hard to impress and get along with the obscenely rich Catton family, there is also a sly glint to his eyes that is at once creepy and interesting. He impresses Felix’s mother Elspeth (played by the gorgeous Rosamund Pike) with understanding quips about her troubles and his father, with knowledge about Bernand Palissy’s exotically sculptured plates. He gets together with Felix’s sister Venetia in the mansion garden and combats biting remarks from Felix’s cousin and his own Oxford classmate, Farleigh.
The rest of the time is spent lounging naked in the fields with the gorgeous British summer in the background, while the Cattons host eccentrically formal dinners on the daily and somehow spend all their days doing fairly nothing. The Cattons soon decide to host a birthday dinner party for Oliver as well, with a theme and long list of guests.
But on the morning of his birthday, Felix drives Oliver to the Quick family home as a surprise, only to realise that Oliver had been lying about his troubles all along. The film hurtles through incidents following this, with a depraved and unhinged tenor that will make you sit up and finally, start taking notice of it all.
Barry Keoghan delivers a powerful performance of middle-class yearning
Saltburn is not your typical eat-the-rich film nor does it provide a burning critique like Parasite. Rather, it highlights the middle class man’s insecurity. Saltburn is filled with the promise of something more, something so spectacular that you will be compelled to admire. But it never quite delivers. The suspense of what will happen lasts only so far and from then on, it all seems predictable. So, by the time the big revelations take place, you feel you might already have seen it coming.
Nevertheless, what the film does deliver on is theatrics. You might enjoy it significantly more if you choose to focus on the brilliant quality of its performance rather than the substance of the plot. Each and every minute expression of the film’s characters, especially its protagonist Oliver’s story becomes increasingly important as the plot unravels and commands attention for a deeper understanding of his motives. The film itself might be quite predictable but it is how he poses about with it that is impressive. The tension between Oliver and Felix, so sensual at times that it almost reaches a tipping point but never does so, is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the film. In fact, Oliver’s chemistry with all the Catton family members are what add to the film- it is at once sensuous but unnerving and sinister.
The tension between Oliver and the Catton family is a slow burn that, despite the lackluster climax, keeps you invested in their complex relationships. His subtle, nervous and yet clever expressions bolsters the character and makes him memorable. And yes, how can one forget the bathtub scene or the graveyard one?
Barry Keoghan’s portrayal of Oliver Quick is a masterclass in subtlety, making you empathise with a dissatisfied middle-class man yearning for the world of the wealthy. Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton perfectly plays the role of the beautiful, the ditzy and ultimately, the damned. He is one of the good ones, even if his family is filthy rich and that makes you sympathetic to him- a role Elordi captivates in.
To watch or not to watch Saltburn?
Saltburn’s visual aesthetics are undoubtedly its crowning glory. The first half of it is set in Oxford University and pubs with an early 2000s’ Indie sleaze vibe that is right in tune with the current interest in everything y2k. The latter half of the film is mostly set at the Catton mansion, a gorgeous British castle with surrounding fields for miles to go. The pond, the fields drowned in the golden hour glow, the menacing labyrinth at the middle of the garden- all radiate sheer opulence and are a visual pleasure.
The only thing that would have made it even better is if it had actually added up to the plot instead of simply being present as an aesthetic addition. It would have made the film more substantial as well. Keep an eye out for the music included in the film as well. With a slew of mid 2000s indies hits playing throughout the Cattons’ decadent parties and at the pubs Oliver frequents, Saltburn evokes a sense of nostalgia. Its back and forth narrative is also of note, especially during the grand exposition, making you take notice of dialogues and details you had not noticed earlier.
Is Saltburn worth the watch, then? Yes, but with a caveat. If you’re here for a gripping story with plot twists that keep you guessing until the end, you might want to lower your expectations. However, if you want screencap worthy visuals and something moderately different with notes of dark and depraved, the film has something to offer.