It’s 2006 and the first day at Oxford University for shy, withdrawn young student Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan). He finds himself an outcast, not part of any clique and spending most of his time alone. That is until a chance meeting with Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) which begins a friendship that will change both of their lives forever.
Felix is the opposite of Oliver, a wealthy aristocrat, tall, handsome, and ridiculously popular individual who is also kind, generous, and for Oliver, the only true friend he’s ever known. But while Felix is Oliver‘s only friend, Oliver is just one of Felix‘s many. Oliver‘s feelings quickly turn from friendship to love, hopelessly devoted. At the end of the school year, Felix offers his friend a summer vacation at his family’s lavish estate, ‘Saltburn’.
At first, he is even more out of place than he was at Oxford. Still, Oliver is welcomed with open arms by Felix‘s eccentric and wealthy parents, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) and Elspeth (Rosamund Pike). As weeks pass, the good times continue and Oliver soaks up this new hedonistic and decadent lifestyle. Yet still, he can’t help but feel he’s one wrong move away from losing his friend. His infatuation turns to obsession and Oliver proves he’ll do anything to remain at ‘Saltburn’.
Filmmaker Emerald Fennell made a splash in 2021, winning an Oscar for her debut film ‘Promising Young Woman’. An unpredictable revenge thriller which delighted audiences with its dark comedy. For Saltburn, Fennell now sets her sights on the class divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, doing so with another provocative film designed to shock audiences but keep them too enthralled to look away.
I think many of us have felt isolated or like we don’t belong at some point in our lives. If we’re lucky, we’ll find something or someone which makes us feel whole. From then on, there’s no imagining what we may do to hold onto that feeling, and this is something which Saltburn delves into so incredibly. The world Fennell has created feels alien at first but soon we become lost in the beauty of it all. She presents us a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of this privileged lifestyle and takes us along for the ride.
The cinematography of the film provided by Oscar winner Linus Sandgren is a fascinating 4:3 aspect ratio. Almost as if we are seeing the world through Oliver‘s closed off view of it. Creating incredible shot compositions while putting us directly in Oliver‘s shoes so we can understand his passion for Felix and for ‘Saltburn’ itself. He sees himself in other friends who have overstayed their welcome and fears this for himself.
But Fennell presents this in such a darkly comical way and the film is consistently changing and reinventing itself. What begins as a light romp becomes decidedly more sinister as the layers peel away. Completely unrecognisable from the innocent story of a bromance that we began with.
Keoghan has quickly made a name for himself over the last few years. Between ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ and Saltburn, he is proving one of my favourite young actors working today. Here he is able to transform from one scene to the next. Oliver goes from unassuming and towered over by his peers to having them believably wrapped around his finger. He’s simply a joy to watch.
Elordi‘s Felix is a mysterious enigma. Someone we feel ourselves drawn towards by his magnetism and charm. He comes off as likeable and kind. But we can see all of that can be taken away the moment he grows tired of his “new toy”, Oliver. This is what makes the supporting characters of Saltburn so interesting, particularly Felix and his family. They’re rich, they’re at times comedically out of touch but they’re never malicious. They just belong to a totally different world, one which Oliver is on the outside trying to find a way to get in.
Fans of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ admittedly may get a sense of deja vu from Saltburn. But this is a much more satirical and at times creepier story. Emerald Fennell has created another deliciously entertaining experience. Saltburn keeps its audience guessing, keeps us creeped out, keeps us laughing and most importantly, keeps us captivated through to its breathtaking finale.