SALTBURN is Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her debut feature, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, and similarly is a black comedy dealing with a specific vector of privilege. Where PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN dealt with toxic masculinity and male privilege, SALTBURN takes on the even more tangled web of the British class system. The result is an entertaining, uneven film that fumbles its central aim of satirising the British upper class and the Oxbridge set.
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is the token working class student in his college at Oxford University. His classmates from wealthy families look down on him, and he drifts through his first term without any real friends. However, his social fortunes turn around when he befriends the charismatic Felix (Jacob Elordi), who invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family estate, Saltburn. At the palatial estate, Oliver is exposed to a way of life that he’s never experienced before and is simultaneously confused and seduced by the eccentricities and privileges of Felix’s aristocratic family.
SALTBURN starts strong with the scenes at Oxford capturing the specific social complexities of British universities, entangled as they are in deeply embedded class structures and byzantine systems of social privilege. Oliver’s awkwardness as he struggles to find a place in this environment that is literally not built for people of his background feels authentic, and his obvious desire for increased social standing moves the plot along nicely.
“SALTBURN starts strong with the scenes at Oxford capturing the specific social complexities of British universities, entangled as they are in deeply embedded class structures and byzantine systems of social privilege.”
The entire film is buoyed along by wonderful performances, especially from Barry Keoghan, who brings a mix of sympathy and the creepiness of his role in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER to Oliver in a way that makes him deliciously hard to pin down. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant are very funny as Felix’s haplessly posh mother and father, and they both clearly relish these parts satirising the British upper class. It’s also easy to overlook Jacob Elordi, who delivers a more minor performance but one that crucially grounds the film with a sense of reality as we can see how this charismatic young man could seduce someone like Oliver and how he fits into the systems of inherited privilege and wealth driving the narrative.
Unfortunately, like Oliver himself, the film enters a period of limbo once it arrives at Saltburn. The summer of 2007 stretches out forever, and the film spends a lot of time in the mansion building up tensions between characters but leaves far too little time for its denouement. After a specific plot beat, the film’s momentum falls off completely and inelegantly rushes through what should have been the core of the film in fifteen minutes. The film concludes with a series of unnecessary scenes which overexplain everything that has come before and speak to the script’s deep-rooted lack of subtlety.
“The best gags are the most subtle, [but] these moments are overwhelmed by the rather broad caricatures that never manage to satirise the wealthy as incisively as PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN satirised the toxicity of ‘nice guys’.”
SALTBURN is filled with incidents satirising the British upper class, but they too often edge over into caricatures like requiring black tie for a family dinner and Richard E. Grant’s knight wearing a literal suit of armour. The best gags are the most subtle: the film is largely set in 2007, and the sheer prevalence of the final Harry Potter novel throughout the mansion speaks to an upper-class vapidity; an exchange about summer heat studiously avoids mentioning climate change as a clever indictment of climate privilege. But these moments are overwhelmed by the rather broad caricatures that never manage to satirise the wealthy as incisively as PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN satirised the toxicity of ‘nice guys’. The film pokes at the rich – their obliviousness and lavishly decadent lifestyles – in a way that feels authentic but also feels like Fennell is holding back for fear of upsetting her upper-class friends. In this way, it fumbles the handling of satirising the British class system and class’s complex intersections with race, for example: Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) is Felix’s cousin and the only Black character in the film who speaks. Though he alludes to his fragile position in this world of aristocratic whiteness, Fennell never takes this observation anywhere, and the character feels underserved.
SALTBURN ends up feeling like an aristocratic British estate. Superficially, it looks wonderful: the film is lusciously shot by cinematographer Linus Sandgren in a claustrophobic 1.33:1 ratio and was filmed at Drayton House, a Grade I listed country house which has never before been used for filming. But the deeper you get, the more you see the cracks and how much this symbolic edifice is crumbling away with nothing meaningful to hold it up.