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Dan Webster reviews "Saltburn"

 Film still of Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton in Saltburn (2023).
Saltburn, Lie Still/LuckyChap Entertainment/MRC Film/MGM, 2023.
    Film still of Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton in Saltburn (2023).


    Class differences are a common movie theme, especially in movies that hail from the United Kingdom. Stories of common folk rubbing elbows with the upper classes, sometimes even nobility, have intrigued any number of British filmmakers, from Tony Richardson—director of Look Back in Anger—to the producers of the TV series Downton Abbey.

    Emerald Fennell is English, having been born in London. And fueled by her Oscar-winning turn as writer-director of the 2020 film Promising Young Woman, she has now released her follow-up project, the psychological thriller Saltburn.

    At least that’s how some people describe the movie: psychological thriller. It could also be called a study of British class-consciousness. Or an exploration in the wasted lives of the idle rich. Or even a delving into the mind of a Tom Ripley-type character who possesses mixed but eminently ulterior motives.

    Or maybe all the above applies to what Fennell intended, which is part of the problem. It’s difficult to decide just what concept she was going for in both writing and directing Saltburn.

    The movie opens on the campus of Oxford University, and our protagonist—a scholarship student named somewhat obviously Oliver Quick (played by the Irish actor Barry Keoghan)—checks into his room. He peers through the window and spots a charismatic figure, the tall, quite simply gorgeous and clearly well-born guy whom we’ll come to know as Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi).

    Through an encounter involving the flat tire on a bicycle, Oliver ingratiates himself to Felix. And pretty soon the two are fast friends, a situation that doesn’t please Felix’s jealous cousin and Oliver’s dismissive study-session partner Farleigh (played by Archie Madekwe).

    Not that the friendship progress smoothly. But as Felix’s attentions begin to fade, Oliver comes to him with tragic news: His father has died. And when Oliver expresses no desire to go home, Felix invites him to spend summer at his family’s estate—the Saltburn of the film’s title.

    It’s there, in the midst of old wealth, where Fennell’s film begins to evolve. Not only are Felix and Farleigh present, but Oliver is quickly introduced to Felix’s sister Annabel (played by Sadie Soverall) and then to his parents: mother Elspeth (played by Rosamund Pike) and father James (played by Richard E. Grant). And just as quickly, he is pulled into the family drama with only Farleigh—and the estate’s sinister-looking butler Duncan (played by Paul Rhys)—seeming to object to someone they see as an upstart newcomer.

    As the film unfolds, though, they may have good reason. Oliver tends to court everyone, asking questions as if to discover how best to fit in, how best to allay suspicions. Only gradually does Fennell reveal to us that Oliver might not be who he seems. And when that happens, her movie enters the realm of Patricia Highsmith, filled with shadows of the sociopath Tom Ripley.

    Throughout all this, Keoghan plays Oliver mostly as a cipher, yet also someone on the outside desperate to get in by whatever means possible. It’s not his fault that Fennell puts him in scenes that, at times, cause his Oliver to commit acts not just farfetched but, worse, ridiculous.

    As Felix, Elordi proves that he is more than the character he plays in the HBO series Euphoria or as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s movie Priscilla. Madekwe and Soverall are fine, but veterans Pike and Grant are superb—Grant playing a version of the character he does in Alice Troughton’s film The Lesson.

    Acting aside, the fault with Saltburn comes back to intention. Even the title is misleading: is it supposed to represent the ambitions of the common person to assume the role of someone higher on the presumed social ladder? Or is Fennell merely trying to make a film about ambition itself—and how that desire can be aligned, or antithetical, to the notion of love.

    That’s a question that Oliver, as the film’s narrator, actually poses. Sadly, though, he doesn’t offer a meaningful answer.

    For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


    Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for