Here’s what our Film Editor thought watching Saltburn earlier this year…
Since Saltburn made its debut in cinemas, it has proven to be a polarizing film among fans. Featuring a stellar cast including Rosamund Pike, Jacob Elordi, and Barry Keoghan, the movie’s shocking moments have prompted extensive discussions on social media. So, what’s the verdict on the new Emerald Fennell film? Here’s my candid review of Saltburn…
Having attended the cinema during the London Film Festival earlier this year, a significant portion of my experience with Saltburn’s 131-minute runtime was influenced by the infectious laughter of a man two rows in front of me. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself until the movie took a dark turn towards its ruinous conclusion, at which point the laughter came to an abrupt halt.
The film, directed by Promising Young Woman’s Emerald Fennell, starts predictably enough, or so you’d think. A bespectacled, scholarship kid Oliver (Barry Keoghan) starts Oxford, and despite clearly having searing intelligence, struggles to make connections with his tutor or coursemates, only managing to make one friend, a borish maths prodigy. With a lack of other options, Oliver spends time with him while yearning to befriend the effervescent and charming rich boy Felix (played with just the right amount of ‘gap yahh’ aplomb by 2023’s festival darling Jacob Elordi).
Finally finding an ‘in’ with the cool kids, Oliver and Felix bond over Oliver’s difficult upbringing, and the latter ends up inviting Oliver to stay with his family at their spectacular estate for the summer. What is parcelled as a coming-of-tale tale of two friends is littered with moments of creepiness – and that’s before we even step foot in Saltburn.
At first glance, one might expect the narrative to unfold as an Evelyn Waugh-inspired romp, with noticeable nods to Brideshead Revisited apparent—from Charles narrating his summer at the grand estate to his wide-eyed arrival at Felix’s family home. However, this story takes a different turn, steering away from a charming exploration into the world of the very wealthy.
The pervasive sense of unease permeates the film, with Oliver’s borderline disturbing infatuation with Felix and his attempts to integrate into high society contributing to the deepening discomfort. The aesthetic beauty of the house and the apparent closeness between Felix and Oliver are consistently juxtaposed with moments of stark vileness—a sink’s soap dish splattered with vomit, the interior of a toilet bowl, and a carved stone immersed in filth along a river’s edge. These elements serve as constant reminders of the underlying repulsiveness concealed beneath the seemingly idyllic surface of this place.
I found immense enjoyment in every appearance of Felix’s superficial family in the scenes, featuring his impeccably portrayed mother, Elspeth (played by Rosamund Pike), his father Sir James (Richard E Grant), and his ‘masochist’ sister, Alison Oliver, known for her role in Conversations with Friends. A standout moment is their thoughtlessly callous yet eerily polite treatment of their houseguest Pamela (Carey Mulligan). This interaction offers a glimpse into the darkness lurking behind the facade of generosity, with Oliver subtly hinting at the potential consequences if one steps out of line with this family.
A notable aspect of the unease in watching Saltburn is the shared anticipation with Oliver, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Despite the possibility of foreseeing how the family’s seemingly perfect summer could unravel, the narrative still manages to catch the audience by surprise. The storyline also presents moments of jaw-dropping darkness, prompting me to close my eyes during one scene due to the second-hand horror evoked—an unexpected twist for someone who typically enjoys a good horror movie.
As for the conclusion? Since I don’t want to give anything away, I’ll just say that I’m not sure I know exactly what message this movie was trying to convey to its audience – but much like the family’s thoughts on Pamela after she is booted from their home, who really cares? It is a psychological thriller that lives up to its name, and is sure to be much talked about following its theatrical release in November.