Emerald Fennell follows up ‘Promising Young Woman’ with this spiky portrait of the British upper classes


Source: Amazon Studios


Dir/scr. Emerald Fennell. UK. 2023. 127mins

Emerald Fennell’s cheeky class swipe/satire Saltburn sucks from a variety of literary teats: Waugh’s ’Brideshead Revisited’, clearly, and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. But if it brings to mind anything visually, it is that iconic David LaChapelle portrait of Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow outside a Hedingham Castle which has been set alight: Fennell is in that kind of blow-it-all-up mode, and the result is a spikily entertaining, narratively rackety ride led by a formidable Barry Keoghan in devil-may-care mode.

A spikily entertaining, narratively rackety ride led by a formidable Barry Keoghan

Fennell’s inky self-penned riff on Waugh and Highsmith faithfully follows their framework. Keoghan’s first-year student at Oxford, Oliver Quick, is walking in the same footsteps as Charles Ryder as he surveys the Bodliean – only it’s 2006, not pre-war. DoP Linus Sandgren’s colours are richly saturated, and the opening music bellows out the Coronation Anthems (‘Zadoc The Priest’) over credits which deploy medieval font and scream ‘fun to come’. ,Fennell is now using the term ‘pop cinema’ to define her work, and this is a darkly funny film which debuts at Telluride before fast-forwarding to the New York and London film festivals. Going out through MGM domestically and Amazon Prime worldwide, it’s a dripping bauble which should pick up awards attention for Keoghan’s performance, not to mention Rosamund Pike’s richly comic turn. Some British social nuance may not travel so well.

Fennell has it in mind to move Brideshead into more modern times via her Merseyside student Oliver, who arrives in Oxford to realise that the social order there has been cast in stone since prep school – and he is not included.  Sharing a tutor with the laconic Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), he draws closer to the magnetic Felix Catton/Sebastian Flyte character (Australian actor Jacob Elordi), although they eventually meet cute over a broken bicycle rather than alcoholic excess. Oliver’s story of drug-addicted parents and a childhood in care eventually wins over Felix’s sympathy, and he invites his new friend to come to his family pile Saltburn for the summer.

Fennell starts to shed Waugh once the production arrives in this stately home, and there is a centre section where the film is outright funny thanks to Saltburn’s chatelaine Lady Elspeth Catton (the wonderful Rosamund Pike) and Sir James, played to faux-naif perfection by Richard E. Grant. This is purely the world of the writer who gave us Promising Young Woman, with its tart observations and jaw-dropping directness. Her own personal experience of this millieu undoubtedly helps, as she surveys Saltburn’s hangers-on and dependents, in particular the perennially rehabbing ‘Poor Dear Pamela’ (Carey Mulligan) – ”Daddy always said I’d end up at the bottom of the Thames”. After figuring out where Liverpool is, they cautiously welcome Oliver into their fold as their latest pet project. The clan also includes impoverished cousin Farliegh (Archie Madekwe) and Felix’s ‘sexually incontinent’ sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), who is also bulemic. (“You know, two fingers for pudding?” explains former It Girl Lady Elspeth, who insists she was the inspiration for Pulp’s ’Common People’).

After a particularly baroque dinner party where the toffs have a go at karaoke, Fennell sets the lighting to homo-erotic and starts to take off her gloves. Suddenly, Oliver is working the room – in more ways than one – not to mention licking the bathtub clean. His obsession with Felix un-consummated, he moves in on Farleigh, and also Venetia for goot measure. Saltburns’ Lurch-like butler Duncan (Paul Rhys) starts to look more like the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club. And Lady Elspeth’s icy mastery of all she surveys may be less secure than she thinks.

Saltburn is not short, but it is consistently entertaining. Fennell makes some bold decisions within those two hours as to where she’s spending her time: in particular a swift narrative cut at the end seems cruel but, when the sacrifice leads to the most entertaining final sequence you will see this year, all can be forgiven. Key to the film’s success is Keoghan’s elasticity: his face and eyes can shift with a shadow, and it is impossible to conceive of any other young actor having the dangerous edge to pull it all off. (Speaking of which, Saltburn is also a glittering showcase for Elordi, Madekwe, and Owen). Some of the class warfare may not translate quite so well in overseas markets but those who know, will know.

Viewers looking for Oxford or country house porn may be less satisfied: Fennell’s production takes it as read, rather than dwelling on the details. Felix may point at Rembrandts and Holsteins, and that is the way much of the film is lit, but the camera is more interested in Keoghan and Pike and even Felix’s bathwater than it is in gardens or picnics. The location of the estate in which Saltburn shot is being withheld at the request of its owners, and it is not clear whether the Shining-like maze, in which angel wings and horns start to appear, is attached to it. We may never know. Saltburn is not a big-screen must because of the locations or the golden-hour shots,  but because it is dark and funny, and the kind of film that younger audiences should get. In that way, it should play on forever, becoming part of a trifecta with the work of its parents Waugh and Highsmith.

Production companies: LuckyChap Entertainment, Lie Still

International distribution: MGM (US); Amazon Prime

Producers: Tom Ackerley, Emerald Fennell, Josey McNamara, Margot Robbie

Cinematography: Linus Sandrgen

Production design: Suzie Davies

Editing: Victoria Boydell

Music: Antony Willis

Main cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Carey Mulligan, Alison Oliver, Paul Rhys