Class and coveting.
I FOUND EMERALD FENNELL’S FIRST FILM—Promising Young Woman, about a femme fatale who takes revenge on the men who drove her best friend to suicide following a campus rape that was covered up by school officials—to be mildly frustrating. It was well shot and well acted but gratingly didactic and less bold than it needed to be to earn that didactic bent. The characters were less people than Twitter archetypes; the resolution was jarringly pat for a film with a subject as thorny as it tackled.
Saltburn is more interesting than Promising Young Woman at least in part because it’s messier. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a working-class scholarship student at Oxford, finds himself awkwardly out of place amongst the swells whose families all summer together. He stares longingly at Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and his crew of upper-class twits, wishing desperately to join in the fun. Following a chance encounter on the street, Felix takes Oliver under his wing, eventually inviting him to his ancestral home, Saltburn, to stay for the summer with him and his family.
The Cattons are an eccentric bunch in the way that landed British aristocrats often are portrayed. Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike) comes off as caring but distant, hoping to appear to others as helpful while rarely wanting to actually help anyone, while Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant) gives off a distracted air, injecting memories of poets and exotic dishware into conversations. Venetia (Alison Oliver), Felix’s sister, is trouble, while Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), Felix’s cousin, likes to start trouble.
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With the exception of Farleigh, Felix and his family are all decent enough if more than a little clueless, which makes what happens to them all the more troubling. Without spoiling too much, suffice to say that Oliver—who we see at one point slurping up used bathwater and performing sundry other grotesqueries that demonstrate his perverse commitment growing closer to the Cattons—does not have the best of intentions for the owners of Saltburn.
Like Napoleon, I don’t know that Saltburn entirely works. The tonal shifts between aristocratic farce and gross-out cringiness feel in conflict, as it’s too outré to work as class critique and too silly to be greeted with genuine outrage. Meanwhile, there’s a revelation in the third act that is both kind of obvious and entirely ridiculous. However, also like Napoleon, it’s consistently amusing—the film namechecks Evelyn Waugh, but the sardonic tone feels closer to Kingsley Amis—and the actors are a blast to watch interact with each other. It also looks absolutely gorgeous. Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the whole thing with a kind of naturalistic, backlit aesthetic that breathes creaky life into the dusty corridors and corners of old Britain.
And, as I say, it is messy in a way that is confounding some audience members, who seem to take Saltburn as a defense of the upper classes or a scathing critique of the lower orders or both. This reading is wrong, but it’s wrong in an interesting way, one that suggests Fennell was right to play it safe in Promising Young Woman by eschewing subtlety or nuance and instead crafting social-media-ready villains to be defeated. To describe Saltburn as nuanced would be a step too far, but it’s certainly not didactic. Sadly, that might be a problem for those who demand art conform to their own view of the world.