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  • Writer's pictureDenise Breen

Saltburn - Lots of style but little to say

3 out of 5

Filmmaker Emerald Fennell has spent most of her career in front of the camera, known for her television roles in Call the Midwife and The Crown. A few years ago, Promising Young Woman was released; a bold, divisive debut that marked her as a writer and director to be reckoned with. Her follow-up feature is Saltburn, a black comedy thriller set in the mid-noughties.

The plot centres around Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a bright young student embarking on a scholarship at the esteemed Oxford University. Initially a fish out water amongst his upper-class peers, he settles in after befriending Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), a good-looking, popular kid who invites him to spend the summer at his family’s sprawling country manor. On arrival he receives a warm welcome from Felix’s parents Lady Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James (Richard E. Grant) but events soon take a dark turn.

In the opening stages of the narrative, clear comparisons can be drawn between this and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley; a booksmart yet somewhat naïve academic finds himself lured into the excessive world of wealth, becoming increasingly obsessed with the handsome trust fund baby that takes them under their wing. However, like in her previous film, Fennell dips deep into shock value and plays with our preconceived notions. Her satirical social commentary on the complexities of the British class system is skewered by scenes of sexual depravity, and the compelling power dynamic between Oliver and Felix twists and turns throughout.

Irish actor Barry Keoghan has been quietly stealing scenes for the best part of a decade in the likes of ’71, Dunkirk, and Calm with Horses. He received global acclaim last year for his tragic village idiot part in Banshees of Inisherin but this is his greatest leading role to date. His Merseyside brogue plays into the character brilliantly, immediately written off by his posh Southern counterparts, and his performance swivels with Oliver’s motivations. The striking cinematography cleverly feeds into his portrayal, with early voyeurism making way to see him lurch and loom over what he desires, and often capturing his reflection in the lavish lifestyle he is introduced to. Terrific supporting turns from Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike provide a lot of comedy to the piece. Pandering to relate to the guests they look down upon, they play up to the despicable stereotypes of the rich and heartless.

Unconcerned by subtlety, Emerald Fennell makes her films with big swings and broad brushstrokes; even her indie pop-infused soundtrack is on-the-nose. What Saltburn might lack in subtext, it makes up for in devilish humour, shock horror, and stylish entertainment. Having said that, as I was watching it, I kept feeling I had seen it before. Yes, we all have. There is nothing new in the ideas here. What moves this from a 2 star film to a 3 star film is the fantastic performances by Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Richard E Grant and a delightful Rosamund Pike.

At time of writing, it's still in cinemas but most will probably see it streaming on Prime Video now.

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