In Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, Oxford fresher Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is mocked by his supervisor for doing the reading. His classmate Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) agrees. “It’s not what you argue, but how,” he says, delivering the line with a wink. Dorky, friendless and, worse still, from Merseyside, Oliver is learning that in this world, panache trumps substance. It feels like Fennell getting ahead of her critics; a warning that what’s to come isn’t that deep.
With Saltburn, Fennell has the establishment’s attention. Her previous film Promising Young Woman positioned itself as a post-#MeToo rape revenge thriller. Many feminist critics felt it failed to deliver on that promise and misunderstood the very genre it had tried to subvert. Hollywood, on the other hand, gave it an Oscar. Now, Fennell’s instinct is to gleefully test what she can get away with (period sex, necrophilia, full-frontal nudity, a Cheeky Girls needle-drop). More provoking, however, are the film’s class politics.
Saltburn tells the story of a working-class striver who conceals his past and ingratiates himself with a glamorous aristocrat. So far, so The Talented Mr Ripley. Fennell’s first modification is to set the film in 2006, when she would’ve been a student at Oxford herself. Juicy Couture sweatpants, an indie sleaze soundtrack and hardback copies of Harry Potter novels vividly evoke the era. So too does Felix Catton’s hair. He looks like a Hollister model and he has an inherited title. Played by Australian actor Jacob Elordi, Felix is the object of Oliver’s fascination.
After lending Felix his bike, Oliver finds himself with the poshest and most popular kids in college. But he can’t afford a round of Jägerbombs, and so Felix swoops in with a crisp £20 note, saving him from social humiliation. Whether it’s an act of generosity or charity is ambiguous; the film doesn’t tend to distinguish between the two. Importantly, it’s an overture of friendship. Moved by Oliver’s story – a missing parent, and a family life marred by addiction – Felix invites him to spend the summer at Saltburn, the Cattons’ country manor. It’s in this opulent setting (“Evelyn Waugh was obsessed,” Felix drawls) that Oliver’s obsession with the Cattons grows increasingly perverse.
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Fennell’s own privilege is no secret: she is the privately educated daughter of a famous jeweller, and directs many of the film’s jokes at her own milieu. Former model and family matriarch Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) detests ugliness and describes her bulimic daughter Venetia (Alison Oliver) as a cliché partial to “fingers for pudding”. When Felix explains the family’s dress code for dinner, Elordi’s comic delivery is perfect: “It’s just like black tie,” he mumbles, squeezing the words out of the corner of his mouth. On multiple occasions, rich people are both described and depicted as filthy.
But while the film’s humour may be angled at elites, its critique isn’t. The upper classes are depicted affectionately. A montage of Oliver, Felix, Venetia and Farleigh swigging champagne in dinner jackets while playing tennis is nostalgically soundtracked by MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” and depicted in glamorous slow-mo. The scene seems like an advert, not a satire. The Catton family is dysfunctional but ultimately innocent, and besieged by freeloaders. Elspeth is taken advantage of by her friend Poor Dear Pamela (a wanly funny Carey Mulligan), who lives in the house rent-free.
And then there is Oliver, who Keoghan plays with narrowed eyes and a wicked, hungry expression. He spies Felix masturbating in their shared bathroom and afterwards licks the tub clean, and flashes a predatory grin at the “sexually incontinent” Venetia. Keoghan is intensely watchable, gasp-inducing in his commitment, but his character is not exactly plausible. His motivations eventually reveal him as a shape-shifting manifestation of the Cattons’ worst fears.
The film falls apart in its hurried third act, which punishes the Cattons with a venom that never feels earned. The violence that befalls them, if grimly funny, isn’t cathartic – it’s a fantasy of victimhood.
Most films that deal with class warfare pit those who hoard wealth against those who wish to redistribute it. Here, the lower classes are the punchline. They’re ungrateful, inauthentic and jealous, barely concealing avarice beneath a performed stiff upper lip. “Your politeness is so grating,” Venetia tells Oliver. So, too, is Fennell’s faux-rebelliousness. In Saltburn, the director has fallen into the same trap as a first-year Oxbridge student – thinking flair can distract from having very little to say.
“Saltburn” is in cinemas on 17 November
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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Desperate Measures