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Trailer: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directed by Emerald Fennell
Rated R
Visited 17 November 2023

It sounds wrong to call something wonderfully wicked, but that fits Saltburn to a T.

Dark Shadows

Saltburn movie poster

What is Saltburn? Is it a murder mystery? Is it a social commentary? Is it a black (as pitch dark) comedy? Is it a class warfare movie? Is it a satire? Is it a psychological thriller? Is it a rumination on the fear of missing out (FOMO) and other modern human conditions? Is it a spin on imposter syndrome in all its forms? Is it about mental illness? Is it a love story?

The answer is: “Yes.” All those things and more.

The titular Saltburn is a classic English estate, a sprawling mansion in the middle of a wide-open country field. The house itself is a character along the lines of Manderley, Brideshead and Collinwood. Saltburn is home to several Rubens paintings, a Shakespeare folio or two and even a bed soiled by none other than King Henry VIII.

Saltburn the movie builds on Promising Young Woman, writer-director Emerald Fennell’s breakout movie, which earned her the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and star Carey Mulligan (also featured in Saltburn) a Best Actress nomination in 2021. It builds on it so much so, it raises a burning question: Who dropped Emerald Fennell on her head as a child? It’s not so much to file a subpoena as it is to find out where to send the “thank you” note.

This is a wild, twisted ride that’s rather hard to describe while maintaining a spoiler-free zone. But might as well start at the beginning and keep it really simple. Barry Keoghan, who’s made a career out of playing awkward guys (including a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his supremely awkward character in The Banshees of Inisherin), turns in what is certainly a career-bending performance as Oliver Quick. Oliver’s an awkward guy. Okay. That’s not fair. He’s awkward as an Oxford student attending on a scholarship and decked out in clothes off the racks of Oxfam. He doesn’t quite fit in, but he wants to learn how. He wants to be one of the beautiful people.

His mentor — for a lack of a better term — is Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi following up his star-turn as Elvis Presley in Priscilla). Everybody loves Felix. All the girls. Most of the guys. He’s a good star to hitch your wagon. And it doesn’t hurt Felix comes from money.

Unusual Suspects

Saltburn takes the classic slow-burn route as it introduces a collection of snooty, self-absorbed characters and sets them all up for what leads to an unexpected, totally deranged jump-off-the-rails ending.

Once the characters are established, the doors to their dirty souls slowly start to creak open. There’s one scene of disturbing behavior involving the licking of a recently used bathtub. It’s accompanied by the shuddering of an uncomfortable audience witnessing the activity. In retrospect, it’s a bit of foreshadowing when, in an earlier scene, the character doing the tub licking is called a “bootlicker” by a disgruntled Oxford pal who’s burdened with his own bushel of issues.

Then the speed of the spiral slowly escalates.

There are images that cannot be unseen. But that’s part of the fun of Saltburn. (And, yes, this is quite a fun movie.) Those shocking images are greeted with the gasps and groans of a classic audience participation experience, the kind of moviegoing experience that is too few and far between these days.

Fennell pulls off a nifty trick of clever writing. There really isn’t anybody to particularly dislike. Sure, some people are a little deceptive and virtually all of them exhibit questionable judgment. But the Catton family is so detached from the realities of the world, they’re actually strangely sympathetic. There’s nobody despicable. Nobody to hate. And Fennell uses that to her advantage.

Like Family

Oliver goes old-school to build his friendship with Felix. He’s nice and he does him a favor; it’s a strong foundation for a budding relationship, one which ultimately ushers open the doors for Oliver to enter the world of Felix, his family and Saltburn.

Everything goes to Hell when the location moves from Oxford to the Saltburn estate. And that’s a good thing for moviegoers.

Rosamund Pyke, as Elspeth Catton, the matriarch of Saltburn, takes droll — classic British droll — to new heights. She’s forthright and she’s also completely detached from anything resembling genuine emotion. Mentally, she seems easily manipulated and yet, at the same time, Pyke makes Elspeth a woman who could benefit from a simple, solid hug even as she openly provides Oliver with horrible personal insights, such as she has a “complete and utter horror of ugliness.” And with that, Elspeth becomes a measure of the contrasts of Saltburn. Beauty is everywhere. And it’s barely skin deep.

Things start to go south and Oliver is brought into witness the cold darkness.

Following an untimely death of a very close relative, Elspeth simply states to her husband, “Come, my darling. It’s nearly lunch.” And, following the death of a very close family friend, it’s another cold comment, “She’d do anything for attention.”

But Fennell takes this devilish mix of sensibilities right on into the end credits, which lists Pamela, Carey Mulligan’s character, as “Dear Poor Pamela.”

Good Looking

During a recent Sundance Collab online event, Fennell shared some terrific insights into the making of Saltburn. For starters, it was an idea that had been gestating for years and one that moved front and center during the Covid lockdowns. That alone puts Saltburn and modern society on a disturbing common ground. The rich and privileged have always been detached from the harsh realities of day-to-day living, protected from so many of life’s greatest challenges. One side effect of that is dulled senses and reactions, which are clearly on display by the residents of Saltburn. But turning that around, Covid did a number on society as a whole with shelter-in-place mandates disrupting those vital social interactions. Now societies and communities everywhere are paying the price.

In addition, there’s a lot to admire in the filming of Saltburn.

One really great scene involves a morbid situation. A body needs to be removed from the property and to shelter those in the dining room from the unhappy optics of the coroner at work, the curtains are closed. They’re red curtains. Once closed, everyone at the massive dining table is draped in blood red. Very clever. Gorgeous cinematography by Linus Sandgren (Babylon).

And, as seen in the trailers, Saltburn was shot in the old-school 1.33:1 aspect ratio. As Fennell noted during the Collab, anamorphic is common today, but it’s not a necessity. There’s been a lot of aspect ratio shifting in movies lately. Wes Anderson plays it with to convey differences in time and setting. Christopher Nolan shifts between IMAX and scope to build phenomenal theatrical experiences. But here, Fennell and Sandgren stick to the squarish aspect ratio to fill a specific desire of their own: to focus on close-ups of faces and to better serve the towering square of the Saltburn mansion. (To that end, it also serves well as a device to present the tightness of space between characters while also presenting the scale of Saltburn’s high ceilings.)

The strategy creates a throwback to a vintage movie experience and it also means when Saltburn — as an MGM release — inevitably makes its way to streaming on Amazon Prime, those ubiquitous black bands will be on the left and right sides of the screen instead of the more common (in modern film) top and bottom.

• Originally published at

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