Written by Tom Augustine.

“I’ve had a complete and utter horror of ugliness, ever since I was young”. So intones Rosamund Pike’s queen-like matriarch Elsbeth early in Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature Saltburn. You may have met someone like Elsbeth, flitting in and out of Remuera cafes or sipping champagne in the Koru Lounge – someone whose exceeding wealth has provided enough insulation from consequence that they’ve never entirely developed a social filter. In Saltburn, Fennell has taken it upon herself to unload said consequences on Elsbeth and her family – though Elsbeth’s horror of ugliness is shared by the film itself, at least aesthetically. Following on from the candy-pop excesses of her vastly over-praised Promising Young Woman, Fennell has overloaded Saltburn with signifiers of modern cinematic artfulness. Every frame is a painting, rendered in tasteful Academy ratio (echoing the box-like square shaped screens of old), while Production Designer Suzie Davies has filled every corner of the film with rich beauty, whether it be the confines of Oxford University, loaded with history and host to college shenanigans; or the vast grounds of Saltburn Estate from which the film takes its name. Saltburn is an ancient, sprawling world unto itself, frozen in time since the days of Austen, complete with a hedge maze directly out of The Shining – and yes, if you’re wondering, Saltburn does replicate that film’s iconic ‘eye of god’ shot. 


But it is not the horror of The Shining to which Saltburn aspires. It is, somewhat ironically, the lasting majesty of Anthony Minghella’s masterpiece The Talented Mr Ripley, that timeless story of obsession, class and eroticism whose surface beauty barely holds the ugliness of Matt Damon’s chameleonic serial killer beneath. The moments of violence in that film are like ruptures on a gleaming surface, tremors from subterranean tectonic plates that threaten to swallow everything above whole. The Talented Mr Ripley is also a ludicrously entertaining picture, uniting a young cast that would come to define the American cinema of the decade after it dropped – Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman – allowing viewers to bask in their youthful glamour and thrill at the psychological machinations of its titular manipulator. Saltburn imagines a Ripley figure of its own, Barry Keoghan’s Oliver Quick, a character defined by the emptiness of his identity and his desperation to fill it with all the signifiers of capitalist happiness, which are embodied by Jacob Elordi’s Felix, the son of Elsbeth, a bright soul inside and out, uncorrupted by the desperation and dirtiness of need. Keoghan, so good in last year’s The Banshees of Inisherin, is quite clearly a Damon-Ripley clone, while Elordi in all his delicate masculine beauty captures something of the Adonis-like Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf in that earlier, superior film.


It’s at times uncanny just how closely Saltburn follows the Ripley blueprint. Oliver, a poor scholarship student elevated to the majesty of the Oxford campus through his sharp intellect, quickly ingratiates himself into the orbit of Felix, whose willingness to see the good in everyone calls to mind a deer in a forest untouched by man. After Oliver’s father, a drug addict, dies off-screen, Felix invites Oliver to Saltburn for the summer, where he quickly works to both seduce and undermine the members of Felix’ family, which include Felix and Elsbeth, but also Richard E Grant’s dotty patriarch Sir James, younger sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), bitter, bitchy cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) and fragile family friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan, in a small but potent role). Oliver utilises his fly-on-the-wall passiveness to surprise each member with a hidden, dominant sexual deviancy, motivated by his longing for Felix – either to possess him or, apparently, to consume him whole. Anyone who has seen Ripley can likely guess where all this is heading, and Saltburn sees Ripley’s sudden, heinous flashes of violence and responds tenfold, overloading the second half of the film with moments of perversity and volatility that seem designed to get the audience squirming in their seats.

One-time Killing Eve writer Emerald Fennell follows up her Oscar-winning debut feature Promising Young Woman with this handsomely mounted but hollow story of class obsession that doesn’t so much live in The Talented Mr Ripley’s shadow as attempt to recreate it wholesale. As with many stories from the über-wealthy that aim to ‘eat the rich’, Saltburn packs a lot of bark but tragically little bite.

And yet, this is Emerald Fennell, who won an Oscar for her screenwriting – surely there is something more to Saltburn, something that recontextualises Ripley’s obsessions for the modern era? Well, there is, in a sense, something new to Saltburn. As reflects the modern sensibility, there’s a self-consciousness to the film that Fennell can’t seem to escape. The film clearly hopes to co-opt some of the ‘eat the rich’ mentality that has swept across the younger generations in the Trump years, to offer up a grisly reckoning for the blindly privileged über-rich, as with films like The Menu, Triangle of Sadness and the Knives Out films. This uncovers the greatest flaw of Saltburn – much like those films, this one never fully gets a grip on what the class movement of the modern era truly wants, but also distances itself from what made The Talented Mr Ripley a masterpiece. For all Minghella ruminates on the clawing torment of being outside the circle of wealth and looking in, Ripley is first and foremost a character study, foregrounding Damon’s emotional landscape and concentrating on rooting the film’s many twists and turns in the torment of his psyche. 


Saltburn is so focussed on an eclipsing ‘greater meaning’ to its many convolutions that it forgets to give us a character worth following. Keoghan is, remarkably, the weak link in an exceptional cast, never able to get a handle on what his character actually is, whether that’s a hollowed out capitalist shell or a moustache-twirling puppet-master. This inconsistency becomes more glaring as the film goes on, with Fennell seemingly feeling the need to double back on herself constantly to underline what is happening and why, leading to a third act that is both blatantly obvious in intent and uncomfortably rammed up against the no-less-lurid but more elegant former half.   


As with Triangle of Sadness, Knives Out and so on, Saltburn – and, evidently, Fennell – misinterpret the sweeping class struggles of the modern day, mistaking the anger toward the rich for a desire to take their place, in lieu of a change more systemic and meaningful. Ripley was cunning in the execution of a similar character – Ripley wanted to subsume the Greenleaf lifestyle, but he never came to stand in for anything more than himself. He was a blank slate too, but Ripley made that blank slate mysterious and compelling, not just a vehicle for the filmmaker’s intentions. Through Saltburn, there’s a feeling that all the bloodletting is Fennell desperately attempting to serve the fervent masses with vengeance for the injustices of inequality – isn’t this what you want?, she seems to ask with every gruesome turn – forgetting that while it is satisfying to see just desserts given, it is not necessarily revolutionary. Fennell, who herself comes from a life of exceptional wealth – she, like Felix and Oliver, was Oxford trained – and has spoken about her own ‘horrifying privilege’, repeatedly proves unequipped for this conversation, as is the case with many films that aim to speak to the masses from the mountaintop. 


In the characterisation of the cast (and I do wish to make note of the many fantastic performances in Saltburn, particularly Pike, Grant and, most enjoyably, Elordi, who launches into ‘real actor’ stardom with a turn that captures the charisma and beauty of Felix with effortless grace) and in the loving rendering of the halls of Oxford and of Saltburn, Fennell betrays her own fealty to these spaces. It’s the same issue that plagued Promising Young Woman, but with a different hot-button topic: rape culture. There, Fennell felt able to speak with authority on the social issue and with the way to deal with it, only to find meaningful backlash in her rooting of justice for systemically protected ‘nice-guy’ abusers in the police system, an example of the blinkered, unradical thinking that guided the whole project. Here, the writer-director repeatedly lays bare the Saltburn residents’ many hypocrisies, cruelties and malicious intents, but one never quite shakes the feeling that Fennell’s throwing of the grenade that is Oliver Quick is one made by necessity and self-flagellation, rather than a genuine understanding or even desire for concrete change. Fennell feels all too comfortable in the world of Saltburn, which is perhaps why Oliver’s discomfort and lack of awareness never quite tracks, and his heel turn never clicks satisfyingly into place. It’s an ugly feeling, to be aware of your place as an interloper in the gilded nest of the upper class, and Saltburn never quite overcomes its aversion, it’s horror, even, of that particular kind of ugliness.

Saltburn in cinemas now. 



Movie title: Saltburn (dir. Emerald Fennell)

Movie description: One-time Killing Eve writer Emerald Fennell follows up her Oscar-winning debut feature Promising Young Woman with this handsomely mounted but hollow story of class obsession that doesn’t so much live in The Talented Mr Ripley’s shadow as attempt to recreate it wholesale. As with many stories from the über-wealthy that aim to ‘eat the rich’, Saltburn packs a lot of bark but tragically little bite.

Date published: November 16, 2023

Country: United Kingdom

Author: Emerald Fennell

Director(s): Emerald Fennell

Actor(s): Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike,

Genre: Drama, Thriller, Comedy

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