Saltburn review: "Barry Keoghan excels in a lavish but ludicrous psychodrama"


Saltburn opened the 2023 BFI London Film Festival. Here's our review... 

After winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for her crackling first feature Promising Young Woman, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s hotly awaited follow-up is another stylish, darkly comic revenge thriller, soaked in sex and devious doings.

Taking aim at England’s ruthless ruling class rather than American misogyny, it’s a glossy, wildly over-the-top satire about a working-class student’s fatal attraction to an aristo family. Saltburn is a fiercely funny watch, albeit one that doesn’t deliver on its promise quite as well as Fennell’s debut.

The filmmaker loves a prickly outsider, here revelling from the off in the class-of-2006 social ordeals of ignored and impoverished Oxford Oliver (Barry Keoghan, deliciously awkward), who is doggedly determined to befriend the university’s golden boy, Felix (played with languid, ok-yah grace by Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi).

Horrified to hear that Oliver’s drug-dealer dad has died, Felix whisks him off to summer at his family’s vast, portrait-crammed stately home, Saltburn. Which is when things get a bit Brideshead Regurgitated. To Oliver’s delight, the boys bond by lounging naked around the lake and playing tennis in tuxedos.

Squirming humiliations await him, though, delivered by Felix’s narcissistic mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike, gloriously patronising) and vapid father James (a stiff-upper-lipped Richard E. Grant), a pair of poisonous posho caricatures who treat Oliver as a pitiable charity case.

If Saltburn’s knowing jabs at selfish high society feel pretty familiar after the 'hate the rich' movie cycle that’s already given us Parasite, Glass Onion and Triangle of Sadness, Pike’s preening and backbiting (a friend’s suicide is dismissed as "anything for attention") provides sheer scene-stealing pleasure.

But Fennell is so caught up with this sly satire, and her camera so enjoyably fixated on Oliver’s hungry spying on Felix’s sex life (he even slurps up his post-wank bath water) that Saltburn’s lurid revenge plot and showy characters feel secondary to its desire to shock. Cramming the film with luridly sexy encounters (including a menstrual-blood-smeared moonlight tryst) ensures that eventually the cumulative effect is more comic than erotic.

The main redeeming feature is Keoghan’s fine performance, sliding inscrutably from humiliation to heartless Mr Ripley-style manipulation and (literally) grave misdemeanours, as Oliver’s plans for Felix messily unravel. Only his naked yearning provides the film with some emotional heft, as its increasingly unhinged story spins jerkily from a dark, juicily transgressive tale into a lavish but ludicrous psychodrama.

Saltburn is released in US and UK cinemas on November 17. For more upcoming movies, check out our list of 2023 release dates.