A lovely supporting turn from Rosamund Pike – and a raucous cameo from Carey Mulligan – are the main reasons to like the opening movie of the London film festival: the new film from Emerald Fennell, whose fierce 2020 debut Promising Young Woman won her a screenplay Oscar.
Saltburn is an English mystery drama of the high-cheekboned upper classes, watchable but sometimes weirdly overheated and grandiose, with some secondhand posh-effect stylings, a movie derived from Evelyn Waugh and Patricia Highsmith, with a bit of Pasolini; it’s supposed to be (mostly) set in 2006, but behaves as if it’s 1932.
Barry Keoghan steps up to his first proper starring role as Oliver Quick, a bright, awkward young lad from Merseyside arriving at Oxford to read English; his haughty private-school college contemporaries sneer at this “scholarship boy” who can hardly bear to talk about his grim family background. From the first, Oliver is dazzled and infatuated by the exquisitely beautiful aristocratic student Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi – who is also to be seen at this year’s festival as Elvis Presley, in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla.
Felix holds court to the in-crowd of Oxford’s bright young things, yet on a caprice, he generously befriends timid, lower-class Oliver, who has helped him with his bike; perhaps Oliver is his project or pet or charity case or maybe Felix just feels he can relax around him the way he can’t with other members of the jeunesse dorée. Touched by Oliver’s sad and shocking stories of his home life, Felix invites him for the summer vacation to his father’s palatial estate, Saltburn, a place of real prewar grandeur that has evidently escaped being sold off to the National Trust. To pre-empt the obvious Brideshead comparison, Fennell has a line about Evelyn Waugh being supposedly obsessed with the house.
And so we meet his standard-issue eccentric blueblood clan, including father Sir James (Richard E Grant) and sexy-damaged sister Venetia (Alison Oliver); the superb Pike is Felix’s gorgeous, distrait ex-model mother Elsbeth, who has a showstopping line, explaining why she abandoned a youthful experiment with lesbianism and turned to heterosexuality. Then there is cousin-slash-houseguest-sponger Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a mixture of Waugh’s Anthony Blanche and Highsmith’s Freddie Miles, who resents the counter-jumper oik monopolising his best friend, Felix, and shrewdly suspects something slippery about Oliver. Mulligan plays Elsbeth’s morose friend Pamela – the houseguest who will never leave.
Surely cruel, beautiful Felix will tire of his plaything Oliver, who does not belong in this place? But the women of the family variously take a shine to Oliver and things don’t turn out this way. It’s all entertaining enough, although this is a Brideshead-lite, a Brideshead nobility without the Catholicism or the pathos or the wartime regret. Keoghan’s Oliver, though robust and sensual when the need arises, doesn’t quite have Tom Ripley’s vivid neediness – though he has an unwholesome Ripley/Dickie Greenleaf-ish obsession with Felix’s vacated bathwater.
The heavily drawn-out ending feels uncertain, requiring a new tragic mood of solemnity and composed of a broadly guessable twist which relies on there being an absence of anyone in or out of authority showing a normal level of curiosity. Well, the entire cast give it their very professional all, and what great stuff from Pike.