‘It could be an advert for Oxford’: what does Saltburn say about class and privilege in the UK?

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

‘In Saltburn, being rich makes you remarkable, fascinating and deeply sexy’

Charlotte Higgins

Forget class war. Saltburn is interested in class only in order to portray grand English people with large houses as gorgeously twisted and sinisterly attractive, the dazzling flame to which a humble moth (albeit a moth with plenty of destructive powers) must inevitably be drawn.

Though being rich and beautiful could hardly be said to make you happy or decent in Saltburn’s world, it absolutely makes you remarkable, fascinating and deeply sexy. There are two virtuous, non-grand characters in Emerald Fennell’s movie, and you definitely wouldn’t want to go to a party thrown by them.

But don’t pretend: of course you want to go to a party in which Richard E Grant is in fancy dress and the midsummer gardens are lit up with gorgeous lights and there’s a handsome man roaming about wearing stag horns. Saltburn, as an artwork, absolutely loves its own Bridesheady-ness, and even goes so far as to mention Waugh by name in its opening scenes.

But Brideshead Revisited was written by an author capable of rendering (longingly as well as satirically) the precise contours of grandeur precisely because he wasn’t born to it. Saltburn’s underlying perspective – despite the focalisation through its not-grand narrator – is that of the careless, insouciant English upper classes. I think this is a way of saying that Saltburn could only have been written by a very posh British person. A native speaker from the land of the grand.

Drayton House in Northamptonshire.
Palatial … Drayton House in Northamptonshire, where Saltburn was filmed. Photograph: AP

Saltburn is objectionable, I suppose, in that and several other ways I could enumerate – but it is also terribly enjoyable. Emerald Fennell’s sheer pleasure in things and objects and bodies is seductive: drops of sweat on the neck of a lovely young man, a Bernard Palissy dish, a sheet of golden hair let loose and just barely dipping into a lily pond on a hot English day, even the spatter of vomit on a wall after an overindulgent party. She clearly loves invoking desire and disgust.

Saltburn contains what in my various WhatsApp discussions on this film have simply become known as “the scenes” – striking moments in which splendidly over-the-top, possibly titillating and definitely squirm-making events occur. There’s been a certain amount of debate about whether “the scenes” are necessary to the unfolding plot or are otiose shockers. But the film is unimaginable without them because it enjoys their outrageousness so lustily. At the screening I attended, “the scenes” involved the whole cinema collapsing into communal giggles. There’s a lot going on in the world: get your giggles where you can.

The film regards the entire tradition of English country house gothic as something like an enormous dressing-up box to be dived into with squealing pleasure. “Look, look!” it seems to say. “Here is Daphne Du Maurier! Here is MR James! Here is Emily Brontë!” There’s nothing remotely subtle about this. For subtlety and delicacy in this territory, please see Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, a very different beast, though, also involving upper-class people’s difficult relations in and with enormous country houses.

With a kind of over-the-top, indiscriminate lavishness, Fennell has sprinkled her story with references to Kubrick (Barry Lyndonesque candlelit dinners, quotations from The Shining) and she skates fearlessly and perilously between genres, crashing into LP Hartley then ricocheting off Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s all tremendously silly. It’s also tremendous – if faintly grubby – fun.

‘I’ve never wanted to be fantastically rich. I do now’

Rupert Neate

I never wanted to go to an Oxbridge college until I saw Saltburn. Despite reporting on the lives of the world’s super-wealthy for the past seven years, I’ve never really wanted to be fantastically rich. After watching Saltburn I really, really want to be. She makes both Oxford and wealth look ridiculously, fabulously fun.

Despite their vast fortunes, the uber-rich people I’ve met never seemed very happy. Worry about keeping their fortune safe – and away from the taxman – has led many of them to decamp from say Chelsea, South Kensington or the Upper West Side to distinctly more boring places like Monaco, Liechtenstein or St Lucia. Less fun, but crucial, there are little or no taxes of any kind (except VAT).

a scene from Saltburn.
Deadly … a scene from Saltburn. Photograph: AP

The rich family in Saltburn don’t live in a tax haven but a vast stately home somewhere in the English countryside. The location in the movie is never really made clear, but it was filmed at Drayton House in Northamptonshire, a 127-room grade-I listed mansion. It dates back to the 1300s and has been owned by the Stopford Sackville family since the 1770s.

Forget Jacob Elordi, Barry Keoghan, Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan. Yes, all of the cast are beautiful, but by far the hottest star of this film is Drayton House. It is stunning, and captured beautifully with more lingering shots concentrating on its grand staircases and vast square pond than on the actors (I didn’t count, so feel free to correct me).

Immediately on leaving the cinema, I Googled “Saltburn film house location open day”. Not “was that last scene really him”, as my friend did.

My search result revealed you can visit Drayton House on Wednesdays between Easter and September. I have already booked Wednesday 3 April off work – see you there.

All of the characters feel authentically rich: old money rich mixed with trying to appear leftwing and stay connected with the modern world.

When Felix Catton (Elordi) takes his new – much less rich friend – Oliver Quick (Keoghan) home to Saltburn for the holidays, we meet Sir James (Richard E Grant). Head of the family and Felix’s dad, we immediately know which type of rich family the Cattons are from the state of Grant’s hair.

There may be 127 rooms in Drayton House, but a huge chunk of the film takes place in just one of them: a tattily furnished TV room that you could imagine the producers of Googlebox falling over themselves to use. It is authentically shabby, and Grant is authentically aloof.

Richard E Grant in Saltburn.
Patriarch … Richard E Grant. Photograph: AP

The film could also be an advert for Oxford. Again, it looks beautiful, and fun. The poorer students, like Oliver, are treated disparagingly by the rich ones who appear to vastly outnumber them despite official stats showing that by the early 00s – when the film was set – there were more state school educated students at Oxford than private school ones.

The film has been criticised for this. But to me that feels like an authentic depiction of reality that should be brought to wider public attention not sanitised out for fear of insulting people. And Oliver definitely has the last laugh over the wealthy characters.

Trepidation of entering a society dominated by rich posh people was why I didn’t want to go to Oxford or Cambridge. But if I’d known that with a bit of guile a comprehensive kid like Oliver or I (yes I know my name is Rupert but I’m not posh, honest) could use it to infiltrate the rich and take their fortunes, I might have reconsidered my Ucas choices.

‘Emerald Fennell despises the middle classes’

Danny Lavelle

Social class, what it is and where I fit into it, is something I have torn my hair out over my entire life. My working-class grandparents ascended the social ladder when they became schoolteachers; mum was educated at a posh prep school where my grandad taught; and my dad is a lawyer and a part-time judge. All of these things put me firmly in the middle-class category. But I spent my early years in poverty and my teens in care; I lived on council estates in the most deprived areas in the country and have been skint for most of my adulthood. All of these things would earn me a working-class badge. So, I’m in class limbo, fitting in with everyone and no one at the same time.

While Saltburn made me even more confused about class, I am sure about one thing: writer-director Emerald Fennell despises the middle classes.

Oliver is a first-year fresher at Oxford. He befriends Felix , a gregarious, pretty young thing from the landed gentry, and worms his way into his inner circle after spinning him a sob story.

Oliver is firmly middle class but pretends to be a working-class boy from Merseyside. Much like the rest of the characters Fennel created for this ensemble, Oliver paints himself as a caricature: a smart, shy lad from a broken drug-addled, dysfunctional family – that’s the proles for you.

Oliver tells Felix that his dad died, which buys him a ticket to Felix’s ancestral estate for the summer hols. The upper classes are just as wafer-thin as the street urchin Oliver created for himself. The plummy coterie in this film have highfalutin titles, live in manors with doting servants and are either horrific snobs like antagonist Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe) or patronisingly kind like Felix.

When Oliver arrives at Felix’s palatial home for the summer, these caricatures become supercharged. Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) is so vacuous that she doesn’t know where Liverpool is. “Is it by the sea?” she asks Oliver when they meet.

Oliver’s ruse goes up in flames when Felix decides to drive him back to Liverpool to reconcile with his bereaved drunken mother, only to discover he’s bourgeoisie incarnate: a semi-detached, tidy lawn, tacky art middler. Beige.

Being beige turns out to be Oliver’s biggest mistake. When Felix thought little “Ollie” was a chubby-cheeked ne’er-do-well, he was happy to have him as a pet. But the middle classes are nobody and everybody. Not poor or rich enough to have an identity, and, in Oliver’s case, a personality.

‘It nails the intoxicating but toxic hedonism of noughties culture’

Jess Cartner-Morley

Saltburn is a mischievous film, with a taste for the delicious detail and a gimlet eye for everyday cruelties. It skewers the foibles of the English upper class: their love of fancy dress and of having baths, of dressing gowns and picnics and talking about their schooldays. It pokes fun at the time warped posho mindset in which everyone adopts 18th-century manners around the breakfast table even though they were murdering Flo Rida’s Low on the karaoke after dinner and dropping pills at dawn to Time to Pretend by MGMT just a couple of hours ago.

The unspoken rules and hidden bear traps that lie in wait for those who dare step out of their lane are laid out in graphic detail. First year undergraduate Oliver arrives at Oxford wearing a striped college scarf – an accessory he imagines will make him fit in. It is painful to see, because the audience can see immediately will do quite the opposite, marking him out as a try-hard in a milieu where entitlement comes with a brittle edge which is used savagely against outsiders. There is an excruciating scene in which Oliver is shamed for the too-long sleeves of his rented tux. This is beautifully observed by Fennell, who as the Marlborough-educated daughter of a society jeweller is herself a product of what she calls “grotesque privilege”. A certain type of posh Englishman will talk for hours, if you let him, about the correct relative measurement of shirt and jacket sleeve.

But Saltburn is not really about class, at least not in the straightforward way that the trailer suggests. Most of the action is set in 2006 and 2007, and the film nails the intoxicating but toxic hedonism of noughties culture. The girls wear sequined party dresses from the glory days of TopShop and feather boas, and the boys pop the collars of their rugby shirts and sport Livestrong rubber bracelets – relics from a time when Lance Armstrong was a hero. Rosamund Pike steals the show as society beauty Elspeth, a perennial debutante who seems faintly surprised to find herself living in the 21st century. Very slender, with cheekbones as cut glass as her accent, Elspeth captures the reckless skinny-worship of the era when she jokingly dismisses her daughter’s eating disorder as “fingers for pudding”.

It takes a few decades for the fashion of an era to mellow into palatable nostalgia. The 00s are still too close to comfort for that. There are some beautiful clothes in Saltburn – I spotted pieces from the Christopher Kane and Alexander McQueen catwalk collections of that time – but the film deliberately jumbles high-end style references of the era (Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse, Sienna Miller, Lily Allen, a dash of Daphne Guinness and Isabella Blow) with naff ones (some of the partygoers are straight out of the Prince Harry and Chelsy Davy sartorial playbook). As a film, it is about as comfortable as a Miss Selfridge corset dress and a cheap pair of platform heels. But – just like with the dress and the heels – it’s worth it, for a fun night, right?

‘Saltburn’s purpose is to make in-jokes about how middle class people don’t know how to behave in country houses’

Sirin Kale

I watched Saltburn all the way through to the end and wasn’t bored, which is more than I can say for most films. It looks gorgeous. Rosamund Pike is excellent. In our age of endlessly cannibalised intellectual property, watching a film that wasn’t bastardised from a hit podcast or bestselling novel was refreshing. But the more I started to think about the film, the more I grew irritated.

My main gripe with Saltburn, and the one I keep circling back to is: what is the point of it? I imagine Emerald Fennell, its writer, director, and producer, would say it’s satire, specifically class satire. OK. That explains the film’s thin characterisation, and the way it seems archly delighted with its own performative transgression: at various points, characters slurp each other’s semeny bathwater, perform oral sex on menstruating women, and – it gives me no pleasure to write this – have sex with a freshly filled grave.

So is the satirical point that Fennell is trying to make that being upper class is brilliant, but that the upper classes should stop exposing their soft white bellies to the predatory arrivistes who would steal the family seat? Or is the point that, actually, we should root for middle-class underdogs in their murderous quest to become upper class? If so, why are all the upper-class people we see on screen so awful? Who’d want to surround themselves with those people?

In truth, I don’t know what the point of Saltburn is, other than to make in-jokes about how middle-class people don’t know how to behave in country houses, jokes that feel a little unkind when you consider Fennell’s own privileged background and upbringing.

Emerald Fennell is an Oxford University English literature graduate, so she’ll understand the reference I’m about to make: in Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satirical essay A Modest Proposal, Swift suggests that the Irish poor sell their babies to be cooked and eaten by wealthy ladies and gentlemen as a way of ameliorating their economic situation. It’s appalling, but there’s a deeper meaning: Swift uses satire to underscore the heartlessness of British policy towards the Irish. But without a purpose, satire is just pointless provocation.

A recurrent visual gag in the film is that the characters lie about all day reading Harry Potter, despite having a library full of first editions at their disposal. At least Harry Potter has a deeper meaning: how friends can become your chosen family, and the importance of standing up for what’s right. Saltburn doesn’t know the point it wants to make, only that it enjoys shocking people. I’ll forgive any amount of semen-clagged bathwater and graveside ejaculate if there’s a point to it. But I won’t forgive that.

‘Scratch at the surface and the gilding begins to chip off like a tourist-shop trinket’

Gwilym Mumford

Avoid peering too closely at Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s soapy tale of haves and very-much-wants, and you could easily mistake it for a good film. From a distance it resembles the “gourmet cheeseburger” model Netflix uses for its own films and shows – something both moreishly delicious and reassuringly well made.

Its high-low culture touchstones – Waugh meets Highsmith meets HBO’s Euphoria – are on point. It looks a treat too, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren lending a lurid, eye-popping gloss to old money refinement. Its performers, particularly Rosamund Pike, have a great time feasting on its ripe dialogue. Granted, it’s way too long – did we really need quite that many minutes of Barry Keoghan slurping milky bathwater, or so many shots of coke whizzing up nostrils in slo-mo to the strains of Time to Pretend? – but for the most part it zips along amiably enough, always making sure to deliver a jolt of edginess whenever the plot starts to sag.

So what’s the problem? For me, the doubts about Saltburn begin the moment I filed out of the cinema, the serotonin rush of its 00s soundtrack wore off, and I started to actually think about the carnival of depravity I just witnessed. What was the film actually trying to say about the assortment of themes – wealth, class, lust, sexuality, family and (extremely briefly and unsatisfyingly) race – it stuffed into its Birkin bag? Did any of its many rug pulls make a lick of sense? Scratch at the surface and the gilding begins to chip off like a tourist-shop trinket.

It’s hard to discuss Saltburn’s biggest missteps without getting into heavy spoiler territory. But anyone who has already seen the film will have surely stumbled over the journey of Keoghan’s lower-orders striver Oliver into Tom Ripley-ish mendacious mastermind, which seems both heavily telegraphed and puzzlingly opaque. Does Oliver want to ingratiate himself into the upper orders or destroy them? Is he driven by lust, resentment or just garden-variety psychopathy? Neither he – nor the film – really seems to know. The film’s big reveal is accompanied by a moustache-twirling montage outlining exactly how it was done that seems not only unnecessary – we’d all figured it out ourselves at least 20 minutes before – but also accidentally hovers a magnifying glass over some gaping plot holes.

You’d think Fennell, jewellery-empire scion that she is, might be on steadier ground with the film’s poshos, but that isn’t the case. Saltburn can’t decide whether its titular pile’s inhabitants are likeably louche degenerates, gilded-cage songbirds or careless Tom and Daisy Buchanans. Ultimately you come out of the film feeling a little sorry for them – their largesse having been repaid with cruelty – which leaves Saltburn as that rare class-war drama that sides with the haves over the have-nots.

Still, what Saltburn lacks in narrative and thematic coherence, it makes up for in pure shock value. Every 20 minutes, like clockwork, there’s some new transgression to gawp at. But even those have diminishing returns: by the time of the film’s final outrage, a gleeful punchline Fennell has been waiting the past two and a bit hours to deliver, you respond with a wearied shrug, having had more than your fill of depravity. That’s the problem with gourmet cheeseburgers – eat too many of them and you’ll probably just end up feeling a bit sick.