Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios
There isn’t a labyrinth at the heart of Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, though there is a perfectly kept hedge maze. And there is – of course, because there must be – a minotaur, waiting to be fed.
Fennell is the daughter of silverware magnate Theo Fennell. Privately educated, she went to Oxford University so credit to her for writing what she knows: this is a palpably sexy portrait of the uber wealthy in freefall, with a glorious mid-noughties soundtrack to boot. High class, low morals.
The film, the Opening Night Gala of this year’s BFI London Film Festival, is sure to raise eyebrows. It features some of steamiest antics of any film this year, with an unabashed sexual frankness that manages to be genuinely shocking, if tiresome by the film’s overdue ending. The use of bathwater? It must be seen to be believed.
And how wonderful to finally see Barry Keoghan in a fully-fledged leading role. He plays Oliver Quick, a twitchy fresher arriving at Oxford friendless and penniless in the halcyon autumn of 2006. There he meets the ludicrously hot Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) and realises that their friendship is quickly blossoming into an unreciprocated infatuation. Oliver doesn’t just want Felix. He needs him: Keoghan practically convulses with longing. It’s sexy and weird in equal measure.
Touched by Oliver’s sad home life, Felix invites him to spend the summer in his family home, the eponymous mansion. The way Saltburn upends its established visual language for this change really is its ace. We are whisked away with Oliver, breathless and awed. And what a setting it is. It’s a grandiose maze of bedrooms, libraries, dining halls and parlours that deliberately fails to coalesce into a setting we get to grips with.
Like Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel, there’s a sense of Saltburn being a beast temporarily submitting to human control. Nothing quite adds up. Just when you think you know how Oliver’s bedroom connects, say, to the living room, Fennell wrongfoots us. It’s a hall of mirrors, of lust-charged glimpses and glances. Like the relationship between Oliver and Felix, the house seems to rearrange itself. Who is really in charge here?
Saltburn is captured resplendently by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Many shot here are breath-taking, and this is consistently one of the year’s most beautiful films. The colour grading, coupled with the unique 1.33:1 aspect ratio, gives the impression of looking at Polaroid photography rendered as live flesh, an effect heightened by Keoghan addressing the camera directly, from the future, throughout. Saltburn is drenched in the warm fuzz of memory, knowingly imperfect and even more beautiful for it.
There are easy comparisons to make between Saltburn and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but it feels more helpful to suggest Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with its longing to return to the past, as a helpful reference.
The Brideshead comparisons are also helpful in thinking about Fennell’s up-for-anything supporting cast. Richard E. Grant relishes playing Felix’s father Sir James. The audience are cackling before he’s opened his mouth. Rosamund Pike devours the script as mummy bear Elsbeth Catton. As the butler, Paul Rhys is quietly devastating and it’s refreshing to see Carey Mulligan briefly have fun as an eccentric, mentally unstable socialite. Saltburn is the perfect playground for these wonderful actors to flex their muscles.
Lurking in the periphery is Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) who is perhaps more aware of what’s going on than her brother. Frustratingly, Fennell never really finds anything particularly interesting for her to do. The film, for better and worse, remains dominated by nasty, sex-charged boys.
Speaking of horny boys: Keoghan and Elordi are a pairing so charged with electricity that you worry the projector might blow. In one scene Elordi languishes barely clothed on the carpet, illuminated through drawn curtains by blazing sun: “So fucking hot,” he sighs. Oliver barely manages to stammer “I know.” When they aren’t on screen together, you itch to see them reunited.
It’s delayed gratification that Oliver’s after, so it’s disappointing that Fennell’s screenplay falters to really set the bomb off. She makes witty commentary on the rich but, perhaps owing to her own upbringing, seems afraid to twist the knife.
The film being set in 2006 works to a degree, ensuring Fennell doesn’t have to worry about how social media would affect the plot, but also stops Saltburn from feeling topical in the way it really, really should. In our post-Succession era, it just doesn’t cut it.
It’s exacerbated by the fact that Saltburn goes through four separate endings– each less interesting than the one preceding it – before settling on the cheapest. Like the end of a boozy holiday, you’ll no doubt be glad to depart the haze of Saltburn but that certainly doesn’t mean the trip isn’t worth taking; what a ride.
Saltburn – official trailer
LFF screenings begin at MAC on 4 October and run until 15 October, with tickets for all films and events on the programme now on sale. For full listings and links to online ticket sales visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/london-film-festival-2023
To read more about the BFI London Film Festival go to: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
For more from MAC, including all events listings, visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk
To follow Jimmy Dougan on Letterboxed visit: www/letterboxd.com/jimmydougan