I confess I wasn’t a huge admirer of Emerald Fennell’s first film, “Promising Young Woman.” I couldn’t quite comprehend what all the commotion was about. However, with “Saltburn,” my perspective has drastically shifted. Not only was I pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, I am now a full-fledged Emerald Fennell follower.
The movie tells a story of obsession and is a riff on the novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith and the great movie of the same name made in 1999, starring Matt Damon and Jude Law and directed by Anthony Minghella. The Ripley in this film is named Oliver Quick, and Barry Keoghan plays him in a creepy performance that is made all the more potent by having to compete with a lesser, more humane, and less ruthless sponger superbly played by Archie Madekwe. Oliver is on a scholarship at Oxford (2006), and his only friend is an on-the-spectrum mathematical genius who is gleefully played with just the right amount of venom and awkwardness by Ewan Mitchell. Then, one afternoon, he manages to gain the attention of popular aristocrat Felix Catton (a marvelous Jacob Elordi who is equally stunning as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s movie) after doing him a favor. As a result, Oliver is invited to spend the summer at Saltburn, Felix’s family estate, which sets in motion a tragic chain of events as he becomes more involved with the Catton family.
Fennell does include another source in her story. That would be Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, “Brideshead Revisited.” As Keoghan plays Oliver, he could be equal parts the jealous and rejected Freddie Miles from “Ripley” (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie) and the openly gay aesthete Anthony Blanche (played by Nickolas Grace in the eighties TV series) from “Brideshead.” Fennell, however, keeps the story free from ideological dilemmas or crises of conscience. The Marchmain family in Brideshead was unique in the British ruling class due to their devout Catholicism. For the Catton family, being wealthy causes no feelings of guilt. They enjoy their good fortune, but something is disturbing about their naivety. They are rich and idle, and they are so clueless that they allow a cuckoo into their nest.
Fennell’s writing and directing are brilliantly inventive, with humor, tragedy, and horror mixing perfectly. She gets immense support from her cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, whose work here is truly breathtaking. Using chiaroscuro in the indoor scenes, he contrasts this with the glare of the sun’s rays pouring down on the fabulous landscaped gardens in the middle of what we are told is a record-breaking heat wave. He also uses multiple reflective surfaces to spectacular effect, from mirrors to garden ponds to the surfaces of newly polished pieces of furniture, creating an air of disquiet and unease. In some scenes, a character is seen from different angles in the same shot, as if in discourse with him or herself or something or somebody just off camera.
The acting is sublime. In addition to Keoghan, Madekwe, and Elordi, there is an excellent performance from Alison Oliver as Felix’s sister and a very funny yet heartbreaking cameo from Carey Mulligan as a friend of the family who seemingly hangs around forever until, suddenly, she doesn’t.
But the best is yet to come! The icing on this delicious concoction comes in the form of Rosamund Pike as Felix’s mother, who plays a rotten person yet manages to be sympathetic. All the while, she delivers some of the best lines ever written with such gusto that at least five of them are destined to enter the lexicon. I will not spoil your pleasure of hearing these bon mots coming from the source’s mouth, but there is one that involves her character’s reason for changing her sexual preference that will have you applauding!
SALTBURN OPENS AT SELECT THEATRES ON NOVEMBER 17TH.