Emerald Fennell likes things to be deeply cinematic, with elements that are vast, weird and flamboyant. No matter what you thought of the actor-turned-director’s genre-defying and much debated “Promising Young Woman”—it’s been called unapologetically feminist by defenders like this critic and, well, whatever’s the opposite of that, by others—her filmic appetite that rejected the mundane and conventional was undeniable in that original debut.
After a recent appearance as Midge in “Barbie,” Fennell is back in the directing chair with her unclassifiable sophomore caper “Saltburn,” a studiously mannered dark comedy-cum-thriller that spans across Oxford University and a massive mansion in the North Yorkshire town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea, and feels marvelously British. It’s almost as British as the likes of “Withnail and I” and “Jeeves and Wooster.”
This is both an observation and a bit of a warning, in that you will need a specific sense of humor to get on the wavelength of “Saltburn,” one that requires the viewer to giggle at the hilarious absurdities of a peculiar group of stiff-upper-lipped wealthy people, dropping casual lines like “We dress for dinner here” and “I have a complete and utter fear of ugliness.” With that in place, “Saltburn” is an eccentric delight, a gaudy and gradually darkening gothic tale through which Fennell delivers heaps of directorial finesse and agile vision, despite sometimes stumbling with over-explained twists and an inexplicable narrow aspect ratio you often wish the film broke away from.
It’s also a yarn built almost entirely around the versatile “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Killing of a Sacred Deer” scene stealer Barry Keoghan’s distinctiveness. He’s a performer of steely blue eyes and a razor-sharp gaze that slices his round visage, an actor of rare intensity who can break your heart and freeze your blood simultaneously, sometimes in the same scene. Those qualities are at the heart of his quick-study of an Oxford student character, Oliver Quick. There’s a tinge of menacing duplicity to him when he opens the film with a cigarette in hand and breaks the fourth wall by reciting over and over again, “I loved him, I loved him, but was I in love with him?”
That him is the dreamboat Felix Catton (the effortlessly cool Jacob Elordi of “The Kissing Booth,” also playing Elvis in the upcoming “Priscilla”), who is everything Oliver is not, like a Dickie Greenleaf to Mr. Quick’s Tom Ripley. Where the latter is an obsessively buttoned up and awkwardly reserved middle-class loner with outfits that get mocked by the school’s posh pupils, Felix is as easygoing as they come. He’s a natural charmer with his disheveled hair, talkativeness and rich-person clothes of the casual sort.
The two meet when Felix’s bicycle malfunctions on his way to a social event and the outcast Oliver comes to his rescue. In time, Oliver abandons the only other Oxford geek to pay attention to him and instead grows a friendship with—or rather, a fixation towards—Felix. As their joined-at-the-hip bond progresses, Fennell and editor Victoria Boydell snap their adventures together with beauty and panache across neon-soaked night clubs and well-bred Oxford corners, a scrapbook of college escapades frequent Damien Chazelle cinematographer Linus Sandgren captures with a dreamy dose of grain, contrasts and intimacy.
And we haven’t even reached the eponymous Saltburn yet! The duo gets there eventually due to Felix’s invitation upon the unexpected passing of Oliver’s dad. A colorful array of personalities enter the picture at Felix’s outrageously sized aristocratic mansion that includes chambers like the green room, the blue room, and some other grand bedroom that Felix introduces as the one that still contains Henry VIII’s spunk. (Trust me, it’s funny stuff.)
In the Saltburn-by-the-Sea mix are mama and papa Cattons, Elspeth and Sir James, brought to life with playfulness by a straight-faced Rosamund Pike and a hilarious Richard E. Grant. They make for a gratingly well-meaning couple who often flaunts their privileges while looking conspicuously unaware of them, a combination of power and satiric naïveté that makes every word out of their mouth all the more chaotic. Also under the same roof are a suspicious old-school butler, Felix’s fiery sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, delivering a haunting monologue) and the spirited Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), as the family’s distant relative who lives at Saltburn as an honorary Catton. Elspeth’s idiosyncratic and depressed friend Pamela, played by Carey Mulligan in fantastic costumes that range from metal chic to the Queen of Hearts, rounds off the unusual clan.
For a while, we follow them as they gather around to watch “Superbad” on a ridiculously small TV screen (considering all that wealth), read “Harry Potter” books on lush fields and chit-chat over elaborate meals and heightened dialogue lines that reflect the aughts in all their glory. To quote “The Philadelphia Story,” it is a pretty sight, watching the privileged class enjoy its privileges in their fine, pretty world. So who can blame Oliver for getting comfortable at the Catton Estate—so comfortable in fact that he sees no etiquette problem in sending back a pair of runny eggs at breakfast one day?
Class diversions are quick to materialize in the tableau, alongside Oliver’s darker leanings inside a household that’s been nothing but good to him on the surface. Though Fennell is careful about fashioning the Cattons’ brand of goodness—in her cautionary hands, it looks like a human, yet over-the-top and entitled kind, if the extravagant and debauchery-filled birthday party with a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” theme they throw for Oliver is any indication. Do they seem to believe they are rescuing Oliver? Or are they toying with him until they’re bored?
Amid all these possible scenarios and a terrific production and costume design that doesn’t shy away from opulence and excess, Oliver manages to maintain his enigmatic unknowability, at least for a while. And as the untrustworthy protagonist eventually overstays his welcome, making moves on Felix’s sister and ignoring the family’s need for solitude after the members of the household start expiring mysteriously, “Saltburn” craftily ping-pongs between “Parasite” and the aforementioned “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
Despite the film’s alert handle on the social hierarchy that forms inside the house, you often wish for a more sharp-eyed observation on race from “Saltburn,” especially when Farleigh confronts Felix on his blindspots about his PoC staff in a scene that lands like a throwaway. Elsewhere, when the story’s reveals finally pour in, they feel somewhat tidy and unsurprising, undercutting the film’s well-earned bonkers disposition by over-explaining its final destination.
Fennell’s wins with “Saltburn” are nonetheless major through a daringly styled journey that looks like an inviting postcard from the past, unfolding across various audacious set-pieces, one that goes as far as a soiled sexual act by a gravestone that one needs to see Keoghan in action to believe it. In the end, “Saltburn” works as a distinct and wildly entertaining probe into familiar waters of privilege, rather than the definite word on it, one that reinforces Fennell as a distinguished auteur of the big and the bold even on shaky grounds.