Only someone with a name like Emerald Fennell could make a film like Saltburn: a treatise on the horror and aesthetic depravity of the petite bourgeoisie. Critics have missed this: reviews talk of the “terrible toffs” and their “toxic elitism”; the Evening Standard calls it a “twisty tale of grotesque over privilege”. Saltburn might claim to satirise the frippery of the British aristocracy, but this is dishonest. The film’s brain says “eat the rich!” but its soul says “eww, the middle class.”
It is the story of a beautiful aristocrat, Felix Catton, and his weird working-class friend, Oliver Quick. Oliver is introduced to Felix’s world of astonishing wealth, totally unfamiliar to a hard-done-by kid from Prescot, Merseyside. He likes what he sees. And then (spoiler!) the true extent of this working-class interloper’s evil is revealed: it was all a ruse. The young lad isn’t struggling for pennies on a scholarship at Oxford, nor does he have a dead father and an alcoholic mother (all things that demand aristocratic sympathy).
No, Oliver’s dirtiest secret is that he is actually from a suburb with Neighbourhood Watch stickers in the windows and nuclear families; a house with throw pillows and a front lawn; doted on by a pushy and proud mother who is far plainer than the Catton matriarch. Saltburn does not try to conceal its searing contempt for these people (if you want to know where an auteur’s prejudices lie, just look at who they choose to make beautiful).
So no matter its pretensions, this isn’t a film about the frivolity and emotional ineptitude of the aristocracy. Instead it is a film that confidently demarcates the middle classes as the true villains of Great Britain: untrustworthy and covetous social climbers with none of the exotic intrigue of the poor, nor the blasé taste of the rich. In Saltburn’s universe there is no greater sin than bourgeois aspiration.
Fennell is not the first artist to find horror in the English garden suburb. In Harry Potter, Voldemort might be the purest distillation of wickedness, but the Dursleys terrorise Harry in a manner far more familiar. Their home, Privet Drive, is an aristo’s nightmare: a sea of identikit, red-brick, two-storey new-builds. Shorthand for the unimaginative and closed-minded middle England commuter belt.
And in this manicured, homogeneous neighbourhood sit the Dursleys: fat, tasteless, thick, judgemental and cruel. JK Rowling makes clear that the boorish Nimby patriarch and his curtain-twitching wife haven’t earned the right to their advanced snobbery. Their aesthetic sensibilities are simply too ghastly. For the Dursleys, like Oliver Quick, middle-classness is not incidental to their evil but the source of it.
It is a familiar trope. Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances calls her small bungalow The Residence and pronounces her surname Bouquet in order to conceal her modest class status. We laugh because she does not know her rightful place in the hierarchy. Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney casts aspersions on this class: how vulgar they are once they have wealth! In E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, the upwardly-mobile Leonard Bast is killed by a falling bookcase. In other words: crushed by his class pretensions.
The nouveau riche, or those with the potential to achieve such status, have always generated more ire than the romanticised worker. But the political realignments of the 2010s turbocharged this disposition. Westminster’s focus was apparently redirected to wooing the working classes; understanding the Red Wall became fashionable. When Andy Burnham was campaigning to be Labour leader in 2015, a reporter asked him what his favourite biscuit was. “Give me a beer and chips and gravy any day,” he replied. In 2022, when Oliver Dowden proclaimed the profoundly middle-class virtues of the “privet hedges of suburbia” he was near universally mocked. Quite the sea change from the professional-class managerialism of the Blair years; aeons away from Thatcher arguing there was nothing wrong with defending “middle-class values” in 1975.
All of this has led Britain to a confusing place: the Telegraph now denounces the “sheer awfulness of our progressive middle class” with all the zealotry of a Leninist; the paper baulks at the “callous and selfish” bourgeoisie as if they do not form a core bloc of its readership. And the Deano figure – an imagined lower-middle-class suburban voter considered vital to the Tories’ electoral fortunes by the Economist – is mocked as an object of contempt; as a philistine provincial midwit. Derision of the middle is a national pastime. Saltburn just wants a piece of the action.
Of course, there is no greater loathing than self-loathing. Concealing the truth of a relatively privileged upbringing is one of the most celebrated British traditions, even if it means climbing down the social ladder. The same John Lennon who wrote “Working Class Hero” grew up in a house with a name. Jamie Oliver adopted a mockney idiolect, but his admission that his parents were the proprietors of the pub-slash-restaurant in leafy Clavering in Essex always struck me as reluctant.
It’s no wonder the middle classes so often conceal their provenance, anxious as they are that another predatory director might find out they grew up in a semi-detached house in Hertfordshire. Saltburn basks in the shame of the revelation that Oliver is from a bland and comfortable village. What could be worse?! In Rowling’s mind a banal evil emerges from Privet Drive. To be middle class in Britain in 2024 is to be a tasteless oik; perhaps a malign one too.
[See also: Why make another “Mean Girls”?]