By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
In 2017, two of the year’s best films – Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer – featured young Irish actor Barry Keoghan in a key role. Although these respective projects and the roles he inhabited in them couldn’t be more dissimilar from one another, it came very quickly and abundantly clear that Barry Keoghan is a phenomenal actor. He followed up these two scene-stealing performances with similarly outstanding roles in American Animals, Calm With Horses, the acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl, and The Banshees of Inisherin, the latter of which earned Keoghan an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Now, one of the industry’s most compelling, inventive, and versatile actors teams with Promising Young Woman filmmaker Emerald Fennell for a seductive and intriguing new film – Saltburn.
Saltburn stars Barry Keoghan as student Oliver Quick, who has just earned a scholarship that allows him to attend Oxford University and overcome a background of poverty and parental substance abuse and mental illness. While rejected by most of his wealthier peers at Oxford, Oliver unexpectedly befriends the popular and charming Felix Catton (played by Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi). What starts as a seemingly normal friendship between Oliver and Felix, however, soon turns into something more obsessional and dangerous.
In her sophomore directorial effort, Emerald Fennell affirms her intelligence and craft as a filmmaker after stunning with Promising Young Woman three years ago. A masterful eye for vivid imagery, made all the more poignant with polished cinematography from the renowned Linus Sandgren (First Man, Babylon, La La Land), makes Saltburn an aesthetically and outwardly stunning film. The locations and production design are beautiful as the story progresses from the prestigious Oxford campus in its first act to the alluring estate of Felix’s family for the remainder of the film. And the costume design, meanwhile, is impeccable and thoughtful, making an already good-looking cast all the more visually appealing. Collectively, all of this effort converges on a beautiful film in which each and every frame features a myriad of things to admire.
Strikingly, this outward beauty and elegance starkly contrasts the inner ugliness of the film’s characters and themes. As the runtime progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that there isn’t really a character to root for here, with each and every actor delivering a decidedly different flavor of dislikable. Unlike explorations of class warfare and privilege in other films, Fennell doesn’t give the audience a ‘good guy’ to particularly empathize with, instead opting to take the time intricately exploring the underlying ugliness of its characters. It’s obvious this juxtaposition between outward beauty and inner ugliness is what Fennell was aiming for and, in this sense, she succeeds greatly. Unfortunately, however, this narrative and thematic approach deprives the film of much heart and will likely leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, not dissimilar from where Fennell left the audience with the ending of Promising Young Woman. Like her directorial debut, Saltburn possesses an undeniably strong and disconcentering undercurrent that makes the viewing experience purposefully uncomfortable and disturbing.
Narratively, the film is admittedly similar to The Talented Mr. Ripley, which itself was based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith. Where Saltburn diverges most strongly from The Talented Mr. Ripley is in its lavish, glossy style. Both films tell tales of lies and dangerous obsessions, but Saltburn is glossy and excessive, almost seductively luring the audience into this (not so) secretly horrible world of characters. An obsessive friend pursuing another is neither a novel nor particularly unique plot trope at this point, leaving Fennell’s film to stylistically distinguish itself from its similar predecessors.
In sharing similar story strands of other films, Saltburn plays out a tad too predictably for the majority of its runtime. The plot takes expected steps as Keoghan’s Oliver grows closer and closer to Elordi’s Jacob while enjoying a summer break together. When the film transitions into a third act that greatly changes the course of events and culminates in a twist that changes one’s perception of the entire film beforehand though, it seems Fennell may have become too ambitious and, at some point, loses the viewer. Character decisions become more perplexing and unrealistic, which makes the film more ethereal than intended and ultimately creates too much distance between the audience and the characters. And as the film comes to an end, it feels as if it has reached a conclusion it hasn’t quite earned, neither narratively or thematically. Instead of leaving the audience with a gut-punch, jaw-dropping moment, it all culminates in more perplexing fashion.
Elevating Saltburn above and beyond many of its flaws are the stellar performances of its ensemble cast. If Barry Keoghan hadn’t already cemented himself as one of the most interesting young talents working today, his performance as the obsessive Oliver Quick will surely quell any doubts. Keoghan is fantastic here, playing the character’s transition from desperate and lonely to invasive and disturbing so brilliantly.
Keoghan’s counterpart in the film, Jacob Elordi, also delivers an unexpectedly nuanced performance. In The Talented Mr. Ripley terms, Elordi is the Jude Law to Keoghan’s Matt Damon, but brings far more depth to the character than one would expect. Elordi’s complex and intricate performance, which highlights his character’s good heart amidst a chaotic family, should not be overlooked here.
Also of note are Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant as Lady Elspeth and Sir James Catton respectively, who are Felix’s parents. Pike portrays a vile, excessive woman, who one can’t help but laugh along with. Pike’s performance is so grand the character’s actions are so rude that it makes her a compelling, at times laugh-out-loud character. Grant, meanwhile, hilariously portrays the aloof father of the family. With guests inexplicably staying at their family home for months on end, Grant’s Sir James has his head firmly in the clouds, which provides plenty of laughs, but also plays into the film’s themes of privilege and the obliviousness it affords.
A final performance to point out is Archie Madekwe, who portrays Felix’s friend and one of the individuals staying at the family estate. Earlier this year, Madekwe excelled in the excellent Gran Turismo and the actor continues his impressive form with his performance in Saltburn. Madekwe is delightfully dislikable as the friend who dislikes Oliver right from the start and seemingly sees through his face. As such, Madekwe’s Farleigh character and Keoghan’s Oliver are rivals throughout, both fighting for Felix’s attention and the benefits that come from being associated with their family. Madekwe showcases his range here as, compared to his more empathic and grounded performance in Gran Turismo, he embodies a silently menacing character whose twisted nature pits him against Oliver.
On a final note, Fennell makes her film a period piece of sorts as the film begins in 2006 and takes place in the early 2000s. In an era in which Stranger Things-fueled 80s nostalgia continues to run rampant, it’s interesting to see a filmmaker situate their film in a more recent and less flashy time period. Characters read “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” sing karaoke to “Low” by Flo Rida, and cell phones aren’t quite smartphones yet, for instance. All of this and more makes Saltburn somewhat of a nostalgic experience for those who grew up in the early 2000s. makes for a nostalgic manages to capture the early 2000s.
Saltburn is a successful sophomore outing for writer/director Emerald Fennell after her acclaimed Promising Young Woman. Starkly juxtaposing outward beauty (i.e., with beautiful production design, costume design, cinematography, settings, etc.) with characters’ inner ugliness, Fennell executes a film that is both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally unnerving to experience. Barry Keoghan delivers yet another stunning performance as the impoverished and rejected Oliver Quick, whereas Jacob Elordi offers a surprisingly nuanced turn as the wealthy and popular Felix Catton. Hilarious supporting roles by Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, in addition to a delightfully dislikable performance by Archie Madekwe, round out an impressive ensemble that helps to execute Fennell’s vision. A third act marred in strange decisions and unearned plot twists, in addition to a generally predictable narrative, stop Saltburn from being the visceral and cognitively stunning film it wishes to be. Nonetheless, Fennell crafts a meticulous and undeniably entertaining thrill ride, one that will leave viewers disturbed and enthralled in equal measure.