Keoghan Excels in Emerald Fennell’s Stylish but Undercooked Saltburn

The making of a good sandwich is a difficult thing. Sometimes even the tiniest decision can bring the entire creation down. Pairing ham with cheese? Genius! Adding pesto to some plain ol’ chicken? Wonderful! Adding raw onions to anything? Please leave this establishment! Films can be exactly like this. You can have a fantastic cast be a part of a film so well shot that it becomes a verifiable feast for the eyes… but if you add that onion… things come burning down. In other news, welcome to Saltburn.

Following up from the Oscar winning success of her first film, Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell writes, directs, and produces Saltburn: a twisted tale of class, desire, and dependence. Fennell’s story centres on Oliver Quick, a young outsider who is about to begin his first year at Oxford University. Quick struggles in adapting to the university experience and fitting in with the upper echelons of high society until a chance encounter brings him into the life of Felix Catton. Felix is the type of person who is so amiably charming that people simply want to be around him at all times. Before long, Oliver is invited to spend the summer with Felix and his family at their mansion estate named Saltburn. Oliver soon finds himself sucked into the lifestyle of the British elite (sitting in enormous rooms and watching Superbad… who could resist?!) and realises that he could get used to it. To say that twists and turns follow is a cliché; but in the case of Saltburn, it’s is also an understatement. 

Saltburn arrives at a time in which the world has begun to realise a thing or two about the reality of life with and without the silver spoon. The idea of privilege and wealth disparity have become public lexicon to the extent that it is exceedingly rare to not encounter some aspect of it in everyday life. By setting the film in the not too distant but simultaneously prehistoric sounding 2006, Fennell seemingly attempts to gain some leverage in a number of ways. Oliver clearly lives a different reality to Felix, a fact which Felix cannot help but remind him when conversations about dressing formally for dinner are had. Instead of asking Oliver to bring a sport jacket, Felix decides to give him a spare. It is these uncomfortable moments that sets in stone the boundaries of class and acts as a blindspot for those up high, and fuel for those below. A major theme of the film is the idea of dependence on others and Fennell goes to extreme lengths to drive that point home. Save for some nice banter between Carey Mulligan’s helpless Pamela and Rosamund Pike’s sharp tongued Elspeth, some character’s allowances for dependency wears thinner than others.

Saltburn’s greatest asset is without doubt the cast, who handle mismanaged material with terrific effect. Oliver is played by the always enthralling Barry Keoghan who instills a sense of helplessness in Oliver that always gives way to an indefinable motivation. Keoghan’s performance can only be described as fearless. The role he is given is one so difficult to imagine any brave actor shining in that it defies expectations to see him not only fit into the role so well, but to excel in it. Jacob Elordi’s stock continues to rise with him playing the effortlessly charming whilst childishly stifled Felix. Playing someone so spoiled and yet so endearing is a difficult job, and he does remarkably well here.

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Alison Oliver plays Venetia to perfection. She is extraordinary at balancing controlled vulnerability and playing off of Keoghan. Rosamund Pike steals every scene as their mother, a woman so lost in her own class that she is a goldmine of quotes soon to be seen scattered across the internet. Pike, of course, benefits the most from Fennell’s witty dialogue, but credit to her for her wicked comedic timing. Archie Madekwe plays the conniving Farleigh, a cousin to Felix, but a threat to Oliver. Richard E. Grant is the sparingly utilised James Catton. His impact is fleeting but his work in a particular lunch sequence is fantastic.  

Something Saltburn desperately struggles with is providing something more for the actors to chew on apart from some wonderfully witty dialogue. Characterisation is so dutifully carried by the fantastic cast that it can obscure the papier mâché structure it clings to. Characters such as Felix are underserved by a script that neglects substance over style at an exponential level. Venetia, too, is labelled a description by her mother and it feels like that’s all the film stamps upon her. Oliver and his true nature is perhaps the most neglected of all. Fennell shoots Keoghan in a way any actor would kill for, but he deserves more than what he has to work with. She dangles Oliver’s true feelings for Felix like a carrot for the audience as if she herself wasn’t sure what to do with the subject. Hardly ideal given that is specifically what frames the entire narrative. 

The film’s trailer includes the line “Lots of people get lost in Saltburn” almost as if Fennell is still wandering around the obligatory maze included on the grounds of the property. So much confidence is imbued in its visual splendour that one wishes that the love was spread to all aspects. Opening with a one-shot journey into the pomp of the grounds of Oxford, the film is tremendously shot. Formatted in a square aspect ratio, viewers feel boxed into the mind of Oliver whilst also seeing what draws him in to the world he covets. The interiors of the house provide wonderful substance to the dramatic tension whilst the exterior shots of the grounds of the property would make you forget that this is supposed to be the English countryside and not the Northern Italian vistas of Call Me by Your Name. The cast of actors will pray that their ‘In Memoriam’ section utilises the wonderful close-ups on show here because almost every shot deserves its own poster. 

The writing really is a double-edged sword. The first two acts are full of moments of tension built upon the work of engaging characters played wonderfully by actors in their element. The fact that the same writing is responsible for the total unravelling of any enjoyment and is instead replaced by a gratuitous “twist” that seems so unnecessary that even remembering it only serves to further diminish the moments that work. The ways in which some characters endeavour to sever another’s mental jugular with sharp retorts and diabolical scheming via a karaoke song choice are impressive.

Granted, there are signs of cracks in the foundation when a narrative framework is chosen that from the offset feels verbose and highly unnecessary. Add in some dialogue involving metaphors of moths and vampires that really should have felt the full force of the backspace key and the truth is that the film was never setting itself up to be perfection… but by God was this reviewer willing to look the other way when there was some fun to be found. By the time Saltburn’s credits roll, audiences will be left wondering what could have been, but only after bearing witness to a Sophie Ellis-Bextor needle drop that will by all accounts leave you with one hell of a talking point at the dinner table. 

Like the runny eggs that Oliver takes such offence to, Saltburn is an undercooked case of what might have been. Fennell’s visuals are a sight to behold, but beneath the beauty lies a missing link. Genius casting provides wonderful performances all round, and yet the frustration with how the characters are served remains. A fearless Keoghan leads from the front and does whatever is necessary in more ways than one. One hopes Fennell learns some lessons here because so much promise remains. So much of Saltburn works in its own rite before unnecessary compulsions kick in. How much does it work? Let’s just say that this film does do bathtubs what Jaws did to beaches.

Saltburn is in cinemas from Friday, November 17th

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