It’s a familiar tale: a poor student goes to an elite institution filled with the offspring of very wealthy families and desperately wants to be on the other side of the class divide. On first glance, SALTBURN is one of these stories. But the deeper you get into the exclusive and disturbing world, things are maybe not as they appear to be on their beautiful surface.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, winner of an Oscar and BAFTAs for her debut feature PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, the lushly filmed tale has the kind of art direction and cinematography that demand for the film to be viewed on the largest screen possible. Margot Robbie is a producer on the film.
We meet college freshman Oliver (Barry Keoghan) as he arrives at Oxford for the class of 2006, and has trouble fitting in among the beautiful people. The film’s wardrobe and soundtrack choices do a great job of conjuring up the filthy gorgeous aesthetic of that era’s pop culture. Chief among the beautiful people is Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) the beautiful and charismatic floppy haired golden boy at the center of college attention. Felix moves through life with the ease of a pampered and pedigreed house cat. He’s the mouthwatering main dish of an entire group of Bright Young Things.
Oliver tells Felix stories of his Merseyside (Liverpool) past and of a horrific home life filled with filth and drug abuse. The relationship that develops between them is multilayered, but one where Oliver’s nose is pressed against the window of Felix’s life on multiple levels.
The relationship between Felix and Oliver has a rich friend/poor friend dynamatic with an undertone of homoerotic tension filling the enormous rooms. Included in Felix’s crowd is his bad-boy half-American cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), whose mother moved to New York and who is constantly in need of cash. At the end of term, Felix invites Oliver home for the summer to his titular stately pile.
The enormous and ludicrously grand house is a residence so spectacular that it makes Downton Abbey look shabby and second -rate. Inside we find a disapproving butler, and Felix’s parents who are adorably and absurdly tone deaf to their own wealth and privilege. Felix’s father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) is dotty in the way of the best cinematic English aristocrats. In one brief exchange, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), Felix’s mother is casual when insisting that even if she hung out with Britpop luminaries in her modeling days. Pulp’s “Common People” couldn’t possibly be aboutt her as she hardly knew Jarvis! She has a dismissive take on why she couldn’t be the motivation for the song, “She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge? I never wanted to know anything!” Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and his cousin Farleigh are around as well.
The film has hints of influences from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Downton Abby and Oxford Blues, yet it goes to unexpected places. SALTBURN is likely to be a strong contender at awards season, as nominations are likely for Fennell, Keoghan and, if there is any justice in film-land, for Pike as well.
Among its many gifts, SALTBURN gives us one scene in a cemetery, featuring Keoghan, that will linger with you long after the end credits are over.
SALTBURN screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2023 in Austin, Texas as a Secret Screening. It will be released in theatres on November 24th, with a streaming release soon to follow on Amazon Prime. Our thanks to Fantastic Fest and Fons PR for assistance with this article.