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  • Benjamin May

Saltburn (2023) Review

It is 2006, and scholarship student Oliver Quick has just arrived at Oxford. He doesn’t fit in with the upper-class atmosphere and has no acquaintances. After befriending Felix Catton, a popular and wealthy fellow student, however, Oliver finally seems to find his place at the University. Invited to the Catton family home- Saltburn- for the summer holidays, Oliver is thrust into the dark heart of the blue bloods. Nothing is as it seems though, as the idyllic vacation transforms into one from hell itself.

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, ‘Saltburn’ is an initially intriguing, though ultimately irritatingly derivative, predictable psychological comic-horror. Fennell’s narrative begins with promise. In the first act, you aren’t sure who to trust, nor where the story is heading. However, after the action moves to the manor house, Saltburn, things devolve into a messy and obvious retread of ideas that have been expressed more eloquently in previous films, be they ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley, ‘Teorema’ or ‘The Servant.’

Those films examined themes such as class difference, obsessiveness, personality and manipulation with aplomb and ingenuity. Fennell appears content to skirt around the edges of these themes, never going into them with depth. Nor are the characters in her narrative provided with any kind of motivation for their actions. One, in particular, acts in a violent vacuum of self-obsession and jealously- but why? What made this character the way they are? Fennel never bothers to tell us, seeming satisfied to leave audiences in the dark.

Moreover, her characterization is largely based on stereotypes and cliches. Oliver is essentially just a less charismatic, Scouse Tom Ripley, with darkness beneath a thin veneer of awkward shyness. Felix is exactly like Ripley’s object of obsession, Dickie Greenleaf, while his eccentric family are people we’ve seen before in countless films which mock the aristocracy- ‘The Ruling Class’ among them. Familiar and lacking in depth, Fennell’s characters aren’t particularly interesting, nor is her narrative particularly original. Further, while her dialogue is frequently funny, it can also be pretentious- particularly during Oliver’s intermittent narration.

Throughout the film, Fennell handles the material with great deference- too much, one might argue. She lets uncomfortable scenes linger interminably, seeming to think this imbues them with some kind of raw power. The ending, featuring full-frontal nudity- reminiscent of the music video to Liam Gallagher’s ‘Once,’ starring a thankfully clothed Eric Cantona- seems self-indulgent and, shall we say, cocky. Furthermore, a twist in the last act is neither surprising nor effective, while also sending the film into the realm of fantasy; so completely does it abandon real-world logic.

Conversely, Linus Sandgren’s glossy cinematography is striking. Sandgren makes excellent use of colours and unconventional shots and angles, heightening the suspense of the narrative, as well as compounding the decadence of the Catton family. He employs a ratio of 1.33:1, giving the film a top-heavy, boxed-in look, making locations feel daunting. It is work full of contrast- although, a cynical critic might suggest an over-reliance on cliched visual metaphors, such as reflections, or the obvious juxtaposition of characters wearing devil horns and angel wings.

However, Sandgren’s visuals generally come as a boon to proceedings, as does Suzie Davies’ rich production design. Textured and detailed, her work fosters a vivid, immersive atmosphere, which Sophie Canale’s costume design and Charlotte Dirickx’s set decoration compounds. In addition, Anthony Willis’s score is stirring. His original pieces are seedy and evocative, while songs used throughout- perhaps most notably Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’- complement the narrative.

Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver, alongside Jacob Elordi as Felix, Alison Oliver as Felix’s sister Venetia and Rosamund Pike as Felix’s mother Elspeth. Keoghan is a fascinating actor, who plays strange characters with verve and intelligence. Here, however, he gives an inconsistent performance. When playing Oliver as a weird, insular personality, he shines; though when he has to display his dominant side Keoghan lacks conviction and doesn’t convince- an oddly played, oddly written night-time scene with Venetia being clearest evidence of this.

Elordi does much more assured work, despite the fact that the character is just a 2006 version of the aforementioned Greenleaf. He impresses though, overcoming the scant characterisation of the role. Oliver is excellent, underplaying the complexities of her character, while Pike steals the show as the eccentric Elspeth. Richard E. Grant also stars, as Felix’s father, but is criminally under-utilised, while Archie Madekwe’s grating performance as Felix’s cousin is smug and one-note.

In conclusion, Emerald Fennell’s ‘Saltburn’ is a film trying to provoke, though isn’t as challenging nor original as its creator thinks it is. Though it is funny from time to time, and the first act is intriguing and suspenseful; the film is ultimately an uneven, predictable and derivative affair. While the cinematography is striking and the score atmospheric, the performance of star Barry Keoghan is inconsistent. Although Rosamund Pike is a delight, the film around her is not worthy of her talents, nor can she save it completely. Not to rub salt in the wound, but this film doesn’t burn as brightly as it could have.


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