Emerald Fennell’s second film as writer/director, after the excellent if divisive Promising Young Woman, is another film that takes some narrative risks: Saltburn – but with a verve that must be applauded. A buff Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver, a bright working-class student hailing from Liverpool who has managed to get into Oxford University. The dreaming spires are a social nightmare, however: Oliver, seemingly incapable of mixing with more privileged and wealthy students, is instead lumbered with another misfit who wants to be tested on his maths prowess.
And then there’s Felix, played by Jacob Elordi. Tall, confident and from a whole other social class, he’s caught Oliver’s eye but remains blissfully unaware of him until Felix, running late to a tutorial with a flat tyre, is helped out by Oliver. From then on, Oliver manages to insinuate himself into Felix’s world – much to the disgust of his other friend, Archie Madekwe’s fawning American Farleigh.
When Oliver tells Felix he has just lost his father and comes from a family of addicts, Felix takes him under his wing and invites him to Saltburn – the family home, and a place that reeks of history and wealth. Inevitable culture clashes ensue as Oliver meets Felix’s parents (Richard E Grant and an excellent, very funny Rosamund Pike) and his sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). As the summer continues, events grow gradually darker, culminating in a birthday party that ends in tragedy.
The slippery Saltburn starts out as one thing and shifts into another, with several plot points which would spoil proceedings if revealed – suffice to say that bath and moon waters are involved. Fennell’s script has multiple wince-inducing moments, from Pike’s description of her daughter’s bulimia as “fingers for pudding”to a graveside scene that very much pushes the envelope.
Anchoring the excesses is Keoghan’s enigmatic central performance: seemingly obsessed with Felix, but potentially with other, more dangerous elements at play. A naïve undergrad who gains in confidence around his rich friends, he is superb throughout as the twists and turns of the script reveal more unnerving depths to his character. Social satire is to the fore (none of Felix’s family know where Liverpool is), but Grant, Pike, Oliver and Elordi stop short of making their posh characters one-note. There’s an underlying theme of social unrest: the disconnect between rich and poor and the empty, lazy hedonism of those that have it all, treating Keoghan’s character as a curio, a plaything. This particular toy, though, may have a bite…
Fennell’s vision is nothing if not confident, and despite some tonal leaps and a few laboured metaphors (at one point Keoghan wears minotaur-esque horns as he enters a maze containing a statue of… a minotaur), Saltburn is bravura filmmaking, unafraid of going to places other films don’t. With a superb cast at the height of their powers, and gloriously – often claustrophobically – shot by Linus Sandgren, its soundtrack is well used too: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder On The Dancefloor is particularly effective for a unique dance routine.
Dir: Emerald Fennell (15, 127 mins)
Seen as part of the London Film Festival; Saltburn is in cinemas from Tue 17 Nov
words KEIRON SELF