Rosamund Pike delivers a delightful performance, while Carey Mulligan makes a wild appearance, making them the standout reasons to enjoy the opening film of the London Film Festival. The movie is the latest work from Emerald Fennell, whose powerful debut Promising Young Woman earned her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2020.
Saltburn is an intriguing English drama filled with mystery and centered around the wealthy upper class. While it is enjoyable to watch, at times it can be excessively intense and ostentatious. It draws inspiration from works by Evelyn Waugh and Patricia Highsmith, and also incorporates elements of Pasolini. Despite its setting in 2006, it often feels like a film from 1932.
Barry Keoghan takes on his debut lead role as Oliver Quick, a clever but socially awkward young man from Merseyside who begins his studies at Oxford for an English degree. His wealthy classmates from prestigious private schools look down on him as a “scholarship boy” and he struggles to discuss his difficult upbringing. From the start, Oliver is captivated by the stunning and high-born fellow student Felix Catton, portrayed by Jacob Elordi – who also stars as Elvis Presley in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla at this year’s festival.
Felix is a popular figure among the elite youth of Oxford. However, he unexpectedly forms a friendship with Oliver, a shy and lower-class individual who helped him with his bike. It is unclear if Felix sees Oliver as a personal project, a pet, or a charity case, but he finds comfort in his presence unlike with his other wealthy peers. After learning about Oliver’s difficult background, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his father’s lavish estate, Saltburn. Despite its impressive prewar architecture, the estate has not been sold to the National Trust. In anticipation of comparisons to Brideshead, Fennell mentions that Evelyn Waugh was said to be fixated on the house.
We are introduced to his typical and eccentric wealthy family, including his father, Sir James (played by Richard E Grant), and his alluring and troubled sister, Venetia (played by Alison Oliver). The talented Rosamund Pike portrays Felix’s stunning and distant ex-model mother, Elsbeth, who delivers a memorable line explaining why she gave up her experimentation with lesbianism for heterosexuality. We also meet Farleigh (played by Archie Madekwe), a mix of Waugh’s Anthony Blanche and Highsmith’s Freddie Miles, who is resentful of the “commoner” Felix monopolizing his best friend and is suspicious of Venetia’s motives. Mulligan takes on the role of Elsbeth’s melancholic friend, Pamela, who proves to be a never-ending houseguest.
Will the cruel and beautiful Felix eventually grow tired of his plaything, Oliver, who seems out of place? However, the various women in the family take a liking to Oliver, and things do not go as expected. The story is entertaining, but it is a watered-down version of Brideshead, lacking the Catholicism, pathos, and wartime regret. While Oliver, played by Keoghan, is strong and sensual when necessary, he lacks the intense neediness of Tom Ripley, although he does have a disturbing obsession with Felix’s leftover bathwater.
The prolonged conclusion creates a sense of uncertainty, as it introduces a new somber tone and relies on a predictable twist that hinges on the lack of curiosity from those in power. However, the entire cast gives a strong and skilled performance, particularly Pike.