Downton Abbey it ain’t. The grand estate of Saltburn may be even larger than the Crawleys’ ancestral home, but the tone is distinctly lower. In her second outing as a director, Emerald Fennell takes aim at a subject that has been shot full of holes on many occasions: the English upper classes.
If Fennell’s previous film, Promising Young Woman (2020), was a feminist revenge tale, this movie deals with a clandestine act of class warfare. Both films display a pitch-black sense of humour with some decidedly tasteless moments. The story is steeped in sexuality, in rather perverse forms.
By this stage I know exactly what you’re thinking: “It sounds irresistible!”
If this is largely true, it’s because of a deft, unsettling performance by Barry Keoghan, whom you may remember as the oversexed teenager, Dominic, in last year’s The Banshees of Inisherin. Keoghan scored an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for that minor role, but in Saltburn he is the dark heart of the story who quietly purloins every scene.
The story begins at Oxford, where Keoghan’s Oliver Quick – a name with Dickensian overtones – arrives as an undergraduate. A scholarship boy who hails from Preston, he soon finds he is a second-class citizen alongside the rich, glamorous young things who have followed their parents to the hallowed halls. Although Oliver is a hard worker, and the gilded ones spend all their time drinking and carousing, it’s class rather than commitment that counts.
Among the wealthy crowd, the most charismatic figure is Felix Catton, played by Australian heartthrob, Jacob Elordi – soon to be seen in the role of Elvis, in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla. Homely, uncool Oliver looks upon Felix as if he were a Greek God and contrives to make his acquaintance. The frightening alternative is to spend his time with a maths nerd named Michael (Ewan Mitchell), who is clearly on the spectrum.
Oliver finds Felix to be a loyal, sympathetic friend who takes him under his wing, and tries to make him part of the in-crowd. When the end of term rolls around and Oliver explains how he dreads returning to his broken home in Preston, he is invited by Felix to stay at Saltburn.
Upon arrival he is met by the “terrifying” butler, Duncan (Paul Rhys), and treated to a lavish display of false warmth from Felix’s family, notably his scatterbrain mother, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike at her best), and eccentric father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant, doing his usual routine). The group is completed by Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver); his relative, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), whom Oliver knows and dislikes from Oxford; and another strange cousin, “Poor Dear Pamela” (a fleeting Carey Mulligan).
At every turn, Oliver is made aware of his lack of distinction and his status as a patronised, barely tolerated guest. In this he is similar to Fairleigh, with whom he is in unspoken competition, but the latter has been entrenched in the Catton household since childhood and considers Oliver to be nothing more than a passing nuisance. To Venetia, he is one of Felix’s “toys”, like a stray dog or cat that has been taken in and fed – although she herself is so deranged and needy, she sits scantily clad in the courtyard at night inviting Oliver’s sexual advances.
From the beginning we have been alerted that Oliver is not the non-entity he appears to be at Oxford or around the Cattons’ dinner table. In a voiceover he admits that he loved Felix but wasn’t “in love with him” – a neat distinction that will be teased out as the story unfolds. We feel the sinister overtones of the past tense and recognise that something bad is going to happen.
Because we view events through Oliver’s eyes there is a natural tendency to sympathise with his position. It’s obvious to him that the Cattons are empty, decadent people who go through the motions of upper-class etiquette, such as dressing for dinner, but spend their evenings clustered around the TV set watching horror movies. The favoured reading matter for the entire family seems to be Harry Potter, while the library, with its leather-bound folios of Shakespeare looks as if it’s never been touched. When Oliver ventures in, he is chased out by the butler, who imagines he must have got lost.
The Cattons are incalculably rich and unspeakably vulgar. Their greatest source of distraction is to hold a party for a hundred, or maybe two hundred people. They are loud, boozy affairs that end in chaos. Their dinner parties devolve into hideous karaoke sessions. Oliver, who grows increasingly feral as this tale progresses, believes he has their measure.
Oliver also has his own set of weird obsessions, with his longing for Felix leading to the kind of scenarios that make audiences go “Uuurrgghhh!” He is no longer the underdog, but a master manipulator who uses his wits to get the better of his hosts. This progression is clear enough, but Fennell feels the need to explain everything at the end. It would have been better to simply add a few clues into each scene and skip the big reveal.
It’s not the plot that holds our attention, because there’s an inevitability about the outcome. Saltburn owes its lurid magnetism to the grotesque nature of the characters. We feel the hatred, lust and envy beneath Oliver’s deadpan demeanour, and the superficiality of Felix’s compassion, born from a life of shameless privilege. Venetia is sexually and emotionally scarred to the point of no return, while Fairleigh is terminally resentful of his status as the poor cousin. Elspeth and Sir James, in their own unique way, will do anything to keep reality at bay.
It’s a fast-forward version of the decline of the English aristocracy, mapped out by a soundtrack that begins with one of Handel’s Coronation anthems and ends with a disco tune called Murder on the Dance Floor. Whatever one might say about Emerald Fennell’s directorial style, she could never be accused of subtlety.
Written & directed by Emerald Fennell
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Carey Mulligan, Paul Rhys, Ewan Mitchell, Reece Shearsmith
USA/UK, MA 15+, 127 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 November, 2023