Promising Young Woman Filmmaker Emerald Fennell centres her next in the UK. After a murky yet aesthetic portrayal addressing patriarchy in her first feature, she manages aristocracy in Saltburn. The movie, which shocks, giggles (and horrifies) all at once, premiered at the BFI London Film Festival.
The film revolves around Oliver (Barry Keoghan), a scholarship student at Oxford University in the mid-2000s who struggles to make friends until he does a favour that draws him into the orbit of popular aristocrat Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). This friendship results in Oliver getting an invite to Felix’s titular family estate for the summer. After that, there is a series of events as Oliver enmeshes himself in the Catton family.
Fennell paints a world that seems to be a Hybrid between The Talented Mr Ripley and Bridgerton, with aspects of noir, indie, period drama and gothic horror. The grandiose shots of the university and the estate are not only stunning but the hollowness within each of the characters, especially when Felix’s sister Venetia (played by Alison Oliver) says something like “We’re all cold-blooded, can’t you tell?”. Some of the canted and closeup shots also project looming danger.
In fact, one gothic scene is Oliver walking down a set of garden stairs to Venetia. His dark silhouette is at the backdrop of the early dawn sky while hers is seen in full brightness. Such magnificent isolation shots emphasise a sinister feel and create uneasiness amongst the audience. Linus Sandgren’s crisp cinematography enriches the visual aesthetic.
It almost seems at times, Fennell pays homage to classic literature like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The dynamic between Oliver and Felix perhaps mirrors that of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, though Oliver also has the materialistic and ambitious traits of Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s love interest. For instance, the sequence of the camera moving with Felix as he shows the house to Oliver mirrors Chapter 5 of Fitzgerald’s novel, when Gatsby throws clothes to Daisy to flaunt his affluence as reassurance. Even the larger-than-life parties in the film are similar to the soirees that Gatsby hosted but never partook in them.
The time frame of the mid-2000s also evokes nostalgia yet how despite in modern times, aristocracy is still rampant. Following its dark humour is almost satirical in taunting the elite class, of course, in an extremely larger-than-life and eccentric representation. Rosamund Pike, who plays Felix’s mother, Elsbeth, is effective in a very whimsical yet passive-dramatic role. She delivers some giggles throughout the movie. But the real show-stealer here is Barry Keoghan, who delivers arguably his career’s best work. His callous and minimalistic performance is spine-chilling, not to mention bold at the very least.
Despite its cinematic excellence, one must also be prepared to be revolted by some of the shocking sequences. As appalling as these visuals are, they are sufficient to provide a glimpse into Oliver’s twisted psychology. But yet, Oliver’s psychology is still much less than one would have expected. One would’ve liked to explore his domestic life in greater detail and how growing up really impacted him. This would have made for a more punchy and gut-wrenching storytelling.
.5 (3.5/5 stars)