Two years ago, Emerald Fennell won the best original screenplay Oscar for her debut film as a writer-director, Promising Young Woman. Now she's back with another gleefully nasty, stickily sensual black comedy, this time about a promising young man. Saltburn, which opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday, is worth watching for several reasons, the most obvious one being that it gives Barry Keoghan of The Banshees of Inisherin and The Killing of a Sacred Deer his first leading role.
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Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a fresher at Oxford University in 2006. Oliver is keen to impress: he's bought a college scarf, and he's ticked off every book on the English literature reading list. But he soon learns that he'll never fit in, having missed his chance as soon as he was born. Oliver hails from a poor family in the north of England, whereas all the other bright young things in his ancient, Hogwartsy college have been swanning around the same rarefied circles their whole lives.
His polar opposite is Felix (Jacob Elordi), an impossibly handsome and wealthy party animal who attracts friends and lovers so easily that it doesn't occur to him that other people have to try. Taking pity on Oliver, Felix brings him along to dinners and drinking sessions, often to the toffee-nosed annoyance of his peers, and then invites him to stay for the summer in his very big house in the country, a vast, castellated, Downton Abbey-rivalling stately home with its own lake, meadow and maze. Yes, Saltburn is the story of an envious outsider learning how the one per cent live, very much in the mould of The Talented Mr Ripley and Brideshead Revisited: Fennell acknowledges the latter influence by having Felix claim that his family inspired half of Evelyn Waugh's novels.
Among the current generation, Rosamund Pike sparkles as Felix's mother, an ex-model who floats on a cloud of privilege and beauty. "I have a complete and utter horror of ugliness,” she coos. Richard E Grant is her hearty, nice-but-dim husband. Archie Madekwe is an American cousin who resents the interloper, mainly because he feels like an interloper himself. Carey Mulligan has a priceless cameo as a damaged family friend, clinging on desperately to their support and her own fading glamour. And Alison Oliver plays Felix's sister, who is contemptuous of Oliver, but willing to seduce him, anyway.
The main source of guilty pleasure is seeing the superb ensemble cast relishing dialogue peppered with outrageous, laugh-out-loud punchlines
It's a treat to spend a languid, sultry summer loafing around with these deliciously awful people. Every precisely composed and deeply coloured shot is a work of Pop Art, and the mixture of classical and disco on the soundtrack is a blast. You have to admire the gall of anyone who puts both Handel's Zadok the Priest and the Cheeky Girls' Have a Cheeky Christmas in their film's opening act.
But the main source of guilty pleasure is seeing the superb ensemble cast relishing dialogue peppered with outrageous, laugh-out-loud punchlines. Keoghan, as curiously magnetic as ever, always looks like a wounded animal who might collapse in a heap or might leap up and savage you. Pike steals the show, bringing both poignancy and deadpan comedy to her character's blithe stupidity. And Elordi is a revelation. The Australian actor, currently best known for Euphoria, has mastered a specific type of English boarding-school drawl, and the power that Felix has over Oliver is emphasised by Elordi being about a foot taller than Keoghan. His height has a similarly unsettling effect when he plays Elvis Presley (also with a perfect accent) in Sofia Coppola's Priscilla, so if you're making a film in which an over-confident hunk introduces a young acquaintance to a world of scarily excessive luxury, then Elordi is your man.
Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E Grant, Alison Oliver, Carey Mulligan
Run time: 2hr 7m
Fennell loves to show off her characters' ghastly eccentricities almost as much as she loves to show off their gleaming, sweaty skin, so it may be a while before you notice that nothing much is actually happening. There is some intrigue as to whether Oliver should be afraid of the family or vice versa. There are also some sexual shenanigans which suggest that while Oliver would really like to sleep with Felix, he'll make do with any substitute he can find. But the film has a structural problem, which is that most of its plotting is saved for the final stretch. For much of the running time, Fennell is vague about everyone's motivations and actions, so the film drifts along. And then she suddenly hurries through several major revelations with the speed of someone who wants to reach the end of an anecdote before their phone battery runs out.
Some of these revelations are more ingenious than others. For someone who loves big final twists so much, Fennell is prone to fumble them. And for someone who knows quite a bit about the super-rich (she even played Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown), she has little to say about class divisions that hasn't been said more pithily in several recent films. When you remember the sly plotting of Knives Out and the explosive horrors of Triangle of Sadness, Saltburn does seem a bit half-hearted. For that matter, it also lacks the focused anger of Promising Young Woman.
Still, if you see it as a lurid pulp fantasy rather than a penetrating satire, then Saltburn is deliriously enjoyable. It's the dialogue and the performances that clinch it. Oliver is awestruck when he sees the priceless Old Masters on the house's oak-panelled walls. Every scene in which Pike, Grant and Mulligan compete to be the most obnoxious may prompt the same reaction in the viewer.
Saltburn is released on 17 November.
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