Saltburn Review: An Eat The Rich Satire That Refuses To Bite
Emerald Fennell’s latest film is a darkly beguiling satire of class and privilege – but is its malice always directed in the right place?
Saltburn is director Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film after 2020’s Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman. It follows Oliver, played by Barry Keoghan, a new student struggling to find his place at the University of Oxford.
The university, as it’s presented in Saltburn, is the sort of Oxford people must imagine in their nightmares: Oliver’s rented tux is jeered at, his hometown of Preston unheard of, and all his peers appear to be mad geniuses or snobby posh kids guffawing in elitist packs.
A little bewildered, Oliver soon finds himself drawn to the dazzling flame of Felix, a popular upper-class student played by Euphoria star Jacob Elordi.
As the two form a friendship, and discover how very different their upbringings were, Felix invites Oliver to stay with him for the summer at his country house known as “Saltburn”.
If the first half of the film can be aptly described as Brideshead Revisited meets Rebecca, the second half cannot be succinctly summed up without completely spoiling the plot. Needless to say, it gets very dark and very strange. There were gasps in the cinema and more than a few people covering their eyes.
Fennell has described the film as being something of a vampire story, and it’s true that nearly every character in the film appears to be out for blood. Saltburn, however, is also full of ghosts.
Nothing haunts its sets with greater vengeance than the early-2000s fashion each of its characters don. Eyebrow studs and shaggy hairdos stalk the lavish halls of Saltburn. “There’s nothing that feels lamer than 15-year-old fashion and hair,” Fennell told Vanity Fair in a recent interview.
Wearing clothes that make you wish the film was set ten years earlier, Felix introduces Oliver to the rest of his family. His parents, played by Rosamond Pike and Richard E. Grant, make a deliciously dim duo as the slightly sinister, and very funny, owners of Saltburn. Their daughter, Venetia, is played by Alison Oliver, and Archie Madekwe plays their (slightly) less rich cousin Farleigh, who is also a student at Oxford with Oliver.
The film is undeniably beautiful. Shot with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, you can simultaneously feel the claustrophobia of Felix’s stuffy world and the expansiveness of the house he inhabits. It relishes in bodies, mahogany, and opulence. And it quickly becomes clear why Oliver is bewitched by such a place.
Fennell creates a world of obsession as tantalising as it is repulsive. It will make you squirm – frequently – but you might find yourself struggling to tear your eyes away.
Where the film falters, ultimately, is in its bizarre messaging.
If you don’t want the film to be spoiled, it’s time to look away now.
Saltburn’s greatest sympathies, in many ways, appear to lie with the wealthy. Felix’s family, for all their subtle attempts to control those around them, are more pitiable than they are sinister. Charming, delusional, and slightly dim, they come across as people easily taken advantage of. Jacob Elordi’s character, similarly, has the puppy-doggish look of someone very much used and tricked.
The film’s grand “ah-ha” moment seems to suggest that true villainy doesn’t lurk in the recesses of enormous privilege but rather in the deviance of social climbers.
It’s a baffling conclusion to a film that’s been marketed as a class satire. It’s also the latest in a long list of “eat the rich” cinema to grace our screens. Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and The Menu all came out in 2022 and explore similar themes.
Clearly, there’s a genuine yearning for class and wealth inequality to be properly explored in cinema. Saltburn, for all its beauty, is a mystifying addition to this conversation.