SALTBURN movie poster | ©2023 MGM

SALTBURN movie poster | ©2023 MGM

Rating: R
Stars: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Alison Oliver, Richard E. Grant, Rosamund Pike, Carey Mulligan, Ewan Mitchell, Paul Rhys
Writer: Emerald Fennell
Director: Emerald Fennell
Distributor: MGM/Amazon Studios
Release Date: November 17, 2023

SALTBURN is reminiscent of – oh, dear, can’t say that, might give the game away. So, how to describe it? Writer/director Emerald Fennell has crafted a very English thriller, full of issues of class, identity, and sexual desire, that is impressively perverse.

This perversity is partly in the personalities of its characters, and markedly in their erotic proclivities. (This reviewer isn’t sure she’s ever experienced an audience gasping in shock so many times at certain actions, which aren’t usually depicted onscreen; for that matter, if anybody does them in real life, it’s not discussed.) We do start asking questions on the way out the door, but by then, an impact has certainly been made.

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) introduces us to the story in a way that lets us know something tragic has befallen Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Oliver says that, like everyone, he loved Felix, but protests he wasn’t “in love” with him. Maybe not, but Oliver was certainly obsessed.

Oliver meets Felix when they’re both students at Oxford. Felix is handsome, popular, the son of impossibly wealthy Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant) and Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike). Felix is a scholarship student who dresses modestly and reads fifty books over summer vacation.

It seems that Oliver is destined to admire Felix from afar until, one day, Felix’s bicycle on campus gets a flat. Oliver comes to the rescue by offering his own bike to Felix. Grateful and a bit grand, Felix brings Oliver into his social group.

Over the objections of Felix’s snobby cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Felix invites Oliver to the Catton family estate, Saltburn. The mansion is the size of a palace, with furnishings, staff, and grounds to match. Farleigh also makes his home here. Oliver meets Felix’s parents and younger sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), as well as fellow guest Pamela (Carey Mulligan).

Saltburn itself is overwhelming. For Oliver, so is daily proximity to Felix. Venetia and Farleigh warn Oliver that Felix makes a habit of befriending less-well-off schoolmates and then discarding them. Oliver takes this on board, but then …

It takes a good while for SALTBURN to show its true colors. Once it does, we have a better idea of where we’re going, though we wait until the finale to learn exactly what happened.

SALTBURN is never less than handsome, and sometimes it is dazzling, as with a costumed birthday party. Although the film takes place in this century, Fennell and her production team give it a timeless look, often with candlelight. It’s appropriate, as what’s unspooling is as old as human interaction.

Fennell doesn’t entirely like any of her characters. We start out sympathizing with Oliver, but some of his early behavior makes us raise our eyebrows. We applaud him for how he handles Farleigh’s initial digs at school, but are unsettled by his abrupt snub of fellow outcast, math whiz Michael (Ewan Mitchell).

We see that Felix can be capricious, but he can also be kind. We understand why Venetia has problems. While Lord and Lady Cattan are in some ways stereotypical upper-class twits, there is a heartbreaking longing in both, thanks both to Fennell’s writing and the performances of Grant and Pike.

Farleigh is complex, at once glib, cruel, and vulnerable, and Madekwe inhabits him brilliantly. Elordi makes Felix as advertised, effortlessly charismatic and charming. Oliver is persuasive as the restless, mercurial Venetia.

But Keoghan’s Oliver is unquestionably the central figure, and the actor is multi-faceted and fearless. As Oliver, Keoghan is whatever the moment demands – unassuming, commanding, seductive, desperate, and pretty much everything else besides. He is supremely watchable.

Once we know what sort of film SALTBURN is, comparisons come to mind. We may ponder whether earlier iterations of this theme might have been so bold if the times had allowed, or if Fennell is doing something altogether new.

There are contradictions in the people we meet in SALTBURN, but they all still come off as credible individuals. We wind up thinking about them well after the film is over.

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