When I saw the trailer for “Saltburn”, I was hoping I’d get the opportunity to see the film. The cast was intriguing, especially Barry Keoghan who’s been in award winning films and Rosamund Pike, who’s performance in The Wheel of Time series has impressed me. The film has also been getting positive feedback so I was hopeful for an excellent film. After watching, I found that the film has intense performances, brilliant foreshadowing, and writing and the emotional acting was powerful. While the film has some scenes that could have been eliminated, the complexity of the characters were absorbing.
“Saltburn” is a psychological black comedy thriller written, directed and produced by Emerald Fennell. Set in England in the mid -2000’s, the film follows student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) who is attending Oxford. He becomes friends with charming, rich student Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) who is attending with his cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). Having told Felix that his parents are alcoholics and his father just died, Felix invites Oliver to join his family, Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant), his mother, Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), and his sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), at the family estate, Saltburn. Oliver quickly becomes obsessed with Felix and his family. Over the summer, Oliver is drawn into the world of Saltburn, manipulating the family in an attempt to belong to the eccentric family for a summer that will never be forgotten.
One of the first aspects I noticed is the beautiful cinematography and the use of lighting throughout the film. In the beginning of the film, Oxford is played out in darkness with only occasional moments of brightness. As soon as Oliver is at Saltburn, the scenes are full of light. But as the film progresses, it uses the light to signal and foreshadow changes in the characters or the darkness surrounding the estate. It illustrates the psychological aspects, the manipulation that Oliver demonstrates and it gives us a taste of what he has planned. It is brilliant and subtly done.
The next thing I noticed was the writing and how absorbing the film is to watch. Part of that is the intense performances but it is also how well the film articulates the hedonistic waste of the rich and their flagrant disregard for those they consider beneath them. Even though Oliver is invited to stay, the family talks about why he is there without a concern for his feelings. The way Lady Elspeth speaks about a friend of hers is with a cavalier attitude and lack of empathy for her friend’s troubles. There is a twisted dynamic in play between Oliver and the family that is absolutely intriguing even when you can’t find yourself truly sympathizing for any one party or liking the characters. The psychological elements are well illustrated especially as we are drawn into Oliver’s obsession with Felix. The only question is if he wants Felix or wants to be him. And that writing is excellent when it shows Oliver’s manipulations but also the way the family tries to put him in his place. The place is toxic and every person is controlling.
The comedic moments are quite dark. Usually they erupt from Rosamund Pike and her character blithely stating a cruel fact or ridiculous statement. Quite a great deal of the dark comedy is in the over the top behaviors of both Oliver and the family, in the manipulations and the lies. Both Sir James and Elspeth’s actions are the funniest but each character has their moment to give in to the bizarre.
The intense performances are what make the film shine the most for me. Barry Keoghan is darkly brilliant and deeply intense as Oliver, giving us a layered and nuanced performance of someone manipulative and obsessed. He throws himself into his performance, giving us an emotional performance that half the time made me root for the character and the other half hate the character but I could never look away from the screen. Jacob Elordi is magnetic, like a brilliant sun that you have to watch and his performance is also powerful, especially once he learns some truths about Oliver. The pair are dynamic together, their chemistry undeniable as are the toxic elements to their interactions. Archie Madekwe is unforgettable as Farleigh, his character rich and complex as is the performance that he gives the audience. Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike are brilliant as Sir James and Lady Elspeth. Their ability to demonstrate the eccentricities of the rich and powerful is incredible. Alison Oliver’s performance is deeply emotional, especially in her exchange with Barry Keoghan. Everyone gives incredibly complex and superb performances.
If there are any issues I have with the film is that while it is intense and completely demonstrates the obsessive nature of Oliver, there are some scenes that go far beyond what is necessary to illustrate that nature. The scenes could have been cut or reined in just a touch and still given the same impression. As it was, some of the scenes were far more disturbing than necessary and you truly have to enjoy a touch of the bizarre to completely appreciate some aspects of the movie.
If you like dark comedic psychological thrillers, then this film is one of the best films I’ve seen. It does a brilliant job of highlighting obsessive, manipulative behavior as well as giving commentary on how disconnected the truly wealthy are from normal families. The intense performances will have you completely absorbed in the movie and the powerful performances will keep you engaged even when you might want to turn away. It is emotional with superb performances from the entire cast, although Barry Keoghan is breathtaking and the clear star of the film. I loved his dark and complex performance as well as the incredible writing.
4.5 out of 5 stones.