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Saltburn Review: Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman Follow-Up Is One Of The Year’s Best Films

In 2020, Emerald Fennell made one of the most stunning directorial debuts in recent memory. Promising Young Woman makes brilliant, unconventional choices as a revenge story, a thriller, and a dark comedy – sporting an ending that hits like a bus– and it’s executed with intense, colorful style and stunning performances. It instantly certified Fennell as an extreme talent to keep an eye on, and three years later, Saltburn has arrived with zero evidence of a sophomore slump. It doesn’t quite have the same bite as her debut, it still sports some spectacularly sharp fangs.

Saltburn

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn

(Image credit: Amazon MGM)

Release Date: November 17, 2023
Directed By: Emerald Fennell
Written By: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Alison Oliver, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, and Carey Mulligan
Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, some disturbing violent content, and drug use
Runtime: 127 minutes

The filmmaker once again makes some outrageous moves regarding tone, as single scenes manage to both make you laugh and recoil in horror, and the movie earns its deliberate tone by ever dialing up your curiosity about what’s going to happen next. A terrific social satire, it dazzles the eye with opulence and beauty, but demands rubbing your brain with Purell in the aftermath. Saltburn is a rich cinematic experience in every sense of the word, and it proves that Emerald Fennell is the real deal.

The writer/director’s latest broken protagonist is Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a friendless, introverted nebbish who, in his first year at Oxford, has trouble finding friends beyond a math-loving geek named Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell) – who has even worse social skills than his own. From afar, Oliver watches and admires Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who is the exceptionally wealthy big man on campus who is constantly surrounded by friends who fawn over him and girls who want to be with him.

Riding his bike one day, Oliver comes across Felix with a flat tire and late for class, and when he lends him his wheels, he finds his way into the popular kid’s social circle. When Felix proves to be a genuinely caring friend, Oliver tells him about his broken home life, and this ends up opening the door to Saltburn: the Catton family’s sprawling estate. He is invited to stay for the summer, and while he is consistently watched with a skeptical eye by Felix’s cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), he ingratiates himself with Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver) and parents, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James (Richard E. Grant), and he finds that Saltburn is a place that he never, ever wants to leave.

Barry Keoghan makes the movie with his phenomenal turn as Oliver Quick.

The number one reason Saltburn works as well as it does is because Oliver is an A+ captivating weirdo who, even with the distance of the silver screen, you don’t want to be out of eyeshot for too long. The movie works with some hazy non-linear elements, with flashes of an Oliver in the future reflecting on his love for Felix, and that love winds up taking him in some wild directions through the story. While he initially gives off the impression of being shy, confidence that comes from living the highlife at the titular manor reveals him as a pansexual demon who will do anything it takes to get what he truly wants.

It’s a character that requires a bold, committed, and enigmatic performer, and Emerald Fennell struck diamond in casting Barry Keoghan – who continues to showcase himself as one of his generation’s best talents. Anyone who has seen Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing Of A Sacred Deer knows his capacity for creeping, but it’s an eye-opening thing to see the Irish actor go from Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin to this, as while you recognize the sweetness from his turn as Dominic Kearney at first, it quickly dissolves, and his seemingly harmless exterior reveals something much darker underneath. Oliver is sinister, seductive, sick, and sagacious, and it’s Keoghan’s best work to date.

Saltburn gets the most out of its outstanding supporting cast.

Not to get lost in the lead’s shadow is the stellar supporting cast. Archie Madekwe excels playing Farleigh in his primary mode, which is to say when he’s being a snobby, suspicious bully, but layers are pulled back that reveal him in a new light, and Madekwe plays the nuances well. As Felix and Venetia, Jacob Elordi and Alison Oliver initially appear to be playing rich kid tropes, but Fennell’s script and the performers defy expectations.

The true comedic geniuses in Saltburn, however, are Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant – who at first come across as wealthy, emotionally empty elites… and then prove those initial impressions entirely correct. The emptiness of the characters’ souls is fascinating, and their disturbingly dark reactions to escalating circumstances are laugh-out-loud funny (with a particular highlight being their relationship with Carey Mulligan’s Poor Dear Pamela, Elspeth’s “friend” and a fellow houseguest).

Saltburn is as beautiful as the characters are ugly.

Emerald Fennell plays a wonderful game of contrasts with the aesthetics of Saltburn, as while the protagonists and antagonists alike bring all kinds of darkness and ugliness to the world, they are surrounded by unadulterated luxury and splendor – and it certainly helps you perfectly understand Oliver Quick’s driving desire. The movie was shot on location at a home called Drayton House in Northamptonshire, England, and it’s not only naturally magnificent, but stunningly captured. The director’s collaboration with cinematographer Linus Sandgren yields epic tracking shots that you never want to end and visuals that would entice you to try and walk through the screen if it didn’t mean having to actually be around the deliciously awful characters.

Without saying too much in this spoiler-free space, there are hiccups toward the end concerning twists that are suggested as surprises but are more accurately described as confirmations – but it doesn’t have the effect of derailing the movie, and, in fact, the final sequence is still a jaw-dropper that puts an effective exclamation point on everything. Saltburn is a must-watch for anyone whose sensibilities lean towards the pitch black, and it’s one of the best films of the year.

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