'Saltburn' (dir. Emerald Fennell) Film Review | JG Review
Saltburn, dir. Emerald Fennell (127mins) | Releasing November 17th 2023
Emerald Fennell, perhaps best known at the time of writing for her role as Midge (pregnant Barbie) in Greta Gerwig's recent tentpole, has often found herself caught up in a sort-of Coriolis effect, oscillating endlessly around slam-dunk critical success. I haven't seen her first feature film - the Carey Mulligan fronted Promising Young Woman - which went down well with most critics, but I have seen [Bad] Cinderella, the Andrew Lloyd-Webber co-penned musical which bombed on the West End and then again on Broadway. Her takeover of Killing Eve had a similarly middling reception, and it's this inconsistency in her track record that made me trepidatious for Saltburn, which premieres tonight at the BFI London Film Festival's Opening Gala.
But I was more-so worried about whether I'd even make it into this morning's press screening. Running late with an empty belly, I arrived to see an intimidatingly long queue of press delegates weaving neatly around the American candy storefronts that speckle the Piccadilly Circus highroad. When I did make it in I resigned myself to a lone chair in the front row, reclining between a hipster on my right rambling about "glitches in the matrix" (which I think just refers to a 'coincidence') and a bearded fellow on my left, who had the exact 'oh-ho-ho' laugh you rarely hear beyond the fake snow of a Santa meet-and-greet.
To my initial delight, Saltburn's first act was pretty gripping. We follow Barry Keoghan's Oliver as he arrives at Oxford University. Michaelmas is tough for the character, who struggles to make friends beyond one misanthropic maths-student, but eventually falls into the company of the charismatic Felix (played exquisitely by Jacob Elordi) and assimilates uncannily into the latter's elite friendship group. Keoghan has the gift of being both enigmatic and frightening on-screen, engaging the viewer in an endless tug-of-war between the modes of empathetic and spooked. His surprisingly physical performance here deserves its inevitable recognition in the awards circuit, and feels reminiscent of Joaquin Pheonix's portrayal of Arthur in 2019's Joker. But the impact of Keoghan's fully-committed performance feels hampered by a script which fails to land a satisfactory end.
You see, the film's third act feels trapped in a current that circles around a plughole it refuses to surrender to--ironic given my earlier metaphor about Fennell's tendencies. While the first half of Saltburn pitches a parable on Britain's class divide (Oliver's working class narrative at odd's with Felix's heritage as a titled aristocrat), it later abandons this notion in favour of scripted twists and turns which - while thrilling - offer short-term shocks instead of deeper suppositions. This causes the film to feel hollow.
Fennell spends the first half of the flick whirlybirding over several inviting helipads before refusing to land on any of them, focusing more on the pleasures of the journey than on choosing a satisfying destination. And some of these roller-coaster twists and reveals are well executed, but others feel cheap, or gratuitous for the sake of shock. The final scene in particular feels as if it were spliced from a completely different movie, as Fennell ends the film with a camp-comedic dance sequence that, while surely designed to leave the viewer with an enigmatic final portrait of the lead, betrays the film's fatal flaw in its vacuousness; Saltburn has nothing new to say.
I don't mean to be too harsh--though the last 20 minutes of Saltburn were, for me, a little exhausting, I did spend much of the film marvelling at the sheer beauty of its cinematography. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land, Babylon, First Man) teams up with Fennell to offer a visual feast of a movie that sits comfortably within his portfolio. Also intriguing here is the way the camera lingers over the bodies of its male co-stars; Elordi and Keoghan, both heartthrobs in their own right, are often pictured [semi-]nude and poised - sun-flecked - as if hoping to conjure the ghost of Caravaggio. There is, within Fennell's directorial choices, an interesting (if underbaked) exploration of homoeroticism and [queer] masculinity; Elordi's slighter, almost feminine frame objectified (as women in film often are) through the filmic pov of Keoghan's gaze, the latter's broader silhouette commanding the frame, simultaneously fey and threatening.
Beyond the lush visuals, Saltburn also offers audiences with some stellar supporting performances. Rosamund Pike excels as Felix's mother, the delightfully out-of-touch Lady of the manor who's delivery of Fennell's script was shockingly hilarious. The scenes where Pike shares the screen with the wider ensemble (E. Grant, Mulligan, Keoghan and Elordi) were my favourite parts of the film, and made me wish the wider project focused more on its dark humour than on creating the faux-intellectualism it over-promises as a sexual thriller.
Saltburn is most successful, then, when it focuses on Felix and his aristocratic family unit; Fennell, who herself descends from aristocracy, clearly has a unique and intriguing perspective into the dynamics at play within these kinds of nuclear households, and part of me wishes the script primarily followed Elordi's Felix rather than Keoghan's Oliver, allowing the wider ensemble more room to play comedically with the bigotry of the upper-most class. Watch the sequence in the film in which Pike and Mulligan wonder whether 'they can even afford to have Rehabs in Liverpool' and you'll know exactly what I mean.
Saltburn is a sumptuous, semi-successful reimagining of The Talented Mr. Ripley, with an equally charismatic cast who're weighed down by a lesser script with vacant purpose. It teases an exploration of social mobility, lust and class, and often comes close to interesting suppositions about class mobility and desperation, but Saltburn ultimately fails to flesh out these 2D ideas (which isn't a crime, but feels egregious in light of its faux-intellectual facade and tonal inconsistencies). The result of these disparities is a film which is enjoyable, funny, thrilling and beautiful but feels somewhat soulless all the same--it's filmic intentions dwindling in the light of its brilliant cast, and the grandeur of its aesthetic.
Written by James Green