Saltburn review: Emerald Fennell’s gloriously twisted tale must be seen to be believed

Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in Saltburn.

Saltburn opened the first day of the BFI London Film Festival. It is out in select cinemas on 17 November, and in all cinemas on 24 November.

Every striking film has a striking scene that it will come to be defined by; a scene that is analysed and scrutinised by film fanatics for years to come. Think Timothée Chalamet penetrating a peach in Call Me By Your Name, or Mena Suvari sprawled nude on a bed of roses in American Beauty.

In Emerald Fennell’s deviously sexy second feature film, Saltburn, that moment comes when Oliver (BAFTA-winning The Banshees of Inisherin star Barry Keoghan) curiously watches Felix (Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi) masturbating in the bath through a crack in the door, before later gulping down the semen-spiced bathwater as it escapes down the drain.

If that sounds hard to, ahem, swallow, then Saltburn is not for you. There are plenty more bodily fluids where that came from.

Keoghan’s Oliver Quick is a deceptively wide-eyed fresher in Oxford University’s class of 2006. A working class, studious young man with everything to prove, he takes a shine to Elordi’s Felix Catton – an offensively rich, offensively attractive aristocrat who doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. He’s the centre of the universe, and Oliver is desperate to be in his orbit.

When Felix’s bike gets a flat tyre while on his way to lectures, Oliver sees a way in. Offering Felix his bike, Oliver becomes the day’s hero. He gets to sit with Felix and his numbskull disciples in the pub. Their friendship blossoms, and he’s eventually invited to spend a summer at Felix’s colossal family estate, Saltburn.

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The eponymous manor is otherworldly, though Felix thinks it’s nothing for Oliver to write home about. Yes, King Henry VIII slept in one of the beds, but his sperm has stained the sheets. Yes, they have so many rooms that they’re able to differentiate them by wall colour, but the “blue room” is just, you know, blue.

Vapidity runs in the Catton family, we learn. Felix’s sister Venetia (Conversations with Friends star Alison Oliver) is drawn to Oliver because he’s “so, um, real” (read: poor).

Felix’s father Lord James (Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s Richard E. Grant) is thrilled when his family hosts fancy dress parties, because it means he can wear his suit of armour. His mother, Lady Elspeth (Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike) doesn’t believe that somewhere as alien as Liverpool could possibly have rehab clinics. 

Stills from the new trailer of Saltburn.
Emerald Fennell confirms Saltburn is ‘absolutely’ a queer film. (Amazon Studios/MCR)

Saltburn might transparently be a commentary on the upper echelons of the British class system, but anyone who’s watched Fennell’s first feature film, the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman, knows The Crown star is much more transgressive than that.

As Oliver seeps insidiously into the Catton family’s foundations, we see his layers unfold, unfurling from deer-in-the-headlights to twisted mastermind without so much as a set change (Oscars will surely be calling for Keoghan).

Fennell herself told PinkNews that this is a film where “everyone wants everyone” – and Oliver definitely wants everyone. While queer in nature, Saltburn isn’t about sexuality, it’s about power: here, drinking someone’s bathwater isn’t indicative of sexual attraction, it’s Oliver subsuming another’s territory.

While Saltburn is at times viscerally uncomfortable to sit through, it’s also hard to look away from – at several points during its first screening at the BFI London Film Festival, you could literally hear a pin drop, thanks in part to Fennel’s enthrallingly sadistic treatment of her elitist subjects.

But Saltburn is also, simply, hilarious. Pike is the film’s comedic core: she’s got a paralysing fear of facial hair, while in one particular scene, she reveals that she took up lesbianism once upon a time, but gave it up as it’s too “wet”. Her desperation to get rid of her faux friend and eternal houseguest Pamela (played by Fennell’s Promising Young Woman lead, Carey Mulligan) is also one of the film’s best ‘bits’.

Rosamund Pike in Saltburn.
Rosamund pike is Saltburn’s comedic core. (MGM/YouTube)

Away from the stellar cast, Fennell’s music choices once again deserve applause. Only a true provocateur could pack the Cheeky Girls, Flo Rida and George Frideric Handel’s “Zadok The Priest” into the first hour and make it work. There’s also a particularly glorious scene that I hope will give one Sophie Ellis-Bextor hit a renaissance à la Kate Bush and Stranger Things.

Sure, endless comparisons to The Talented Mr Ripley and Brideshead Revisited are warranted, but Fennell approaches the borrowing of ideas with a wink and a nudge; Felix even declares that his family’s mammoth estate inspired the Evelyn Waugh novels. This is a recycling of other tales, but it knows that, and it has fun with it. 

Extreme, stylish, borderline silly, but above all, endlessly rewatchable – Saltburn is a film that needs to be seen to be believed.

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