“Saltburn” is Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to 2020’s “Promising Young Woman.” That film garnered five Oscar nominations and won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2021. The movie is most like 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It is a baroque, dark, stylish, sexy R-rated story.
“Saltburn” takes place in 2006 at Oxford and on the grounds of a lavish British estate. This salacious, witty follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” demonstrates that Emerald Fennell is a talent with more than one tale to tell. She was awarded the Chicago International Film Festival’s Visionary Award at the Music Box Theater on October 19, 2023.
Saltburn is the family estate of Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”). The palatial estate is really Drayton House, Northamptonshire. This site had never been used as a film location previously. It may never be used again. Part of the contract with the filmmakers was that the exact location and real owners could not be revealed.
The 127- minute film premiered at Telluride on August 23; it also opened the 67th London Film Festival on October 4th. The cryptic synopsis says: “A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.”
The plot takes us inside the world of wealth and privilege that Felix and his cousin, Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwa, “Midsommar”) occupy. Oliver can only marvel at the luxury of Saltburn, as he meets Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosalind Pike, “Gone Girl”), Felix’s father (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”) and Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, “Conversations with Friends”).
Fennell said, “I want to talk about our relationships to the things we want, and what we’ll do to get them.” She pointed out that Oliver wants to be exceptional and is particularly good at figuring out what others want and helping provide it.
This is also, prominently, the story of the haves and the have-nots. In “Promising Young Woman” Carrie Mulligan took on the good old boys’ network and the patriarchy that caused her best friend’s death; Carrie’s character sought revenge. Here, the target is the British aristocracy and the class system in the U.K.
Barry is a loner, but he instantly is attracted to the Golden Boy of Oxford, Felix Catton, a child of wealth and privilege. Not only is Felix a Catton, the wealthy family that owns Saltburn, he is 6’ 5” and gorgeous. Both girls and boys lust after Felix (Jacob Elordi, “Euphoria”).
Director Fennell, onstage at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, explained, “This film is all about detail. There are intimate close-ups. I wanted to be able to see stubble, rash, all of it.” Oliver tells us immediately that he is not in love with Felix, although he does seem obsessed with him. Oliver will do anything to become his friend.
Is Oliver’s obsession with Felix rooted in emotion or something else?
Four of the cast members have been Oscar-nominated (Grant, Keoghan, Mulligan, and Pike)
Barry Keoghan, who had his breakthrough role as Dominic Kearney in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” plays Oliver Quick, the have-not protagonist. Oliver is first seen as a scholarship student at Oxford. He is befriended by the class nerd, Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell, “High Life”), a math savant.
All of the cast are excellent, including Alison Oliver in her film debut as Felix’s beautiful sister Venetia. One part, however, seemed to have been included primarily as a favor to a friend. Carrie Mulligan’s role as Poor Dear Pamela, wearing a red wig and heavy make-up, renders her almost unrecognizable and is largely irrelevant.
“Saltburn” is a story about deception. It has a slow reveal that picks up speed during and after the road trip that Felix plans as a surprise for Oliver’s birthday. That is the turning point. Fennell noted that it spoke to “how willing we are to be deceived.” It also has a party sequence that rivals that of “Babylon” or 2013’s “The Great Gatsby.”
This darkly witty follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” demonstrates that Emerald Fennell is a talent with more than one tale to tell. Fennell’s second film is provocative and likely to set off discussions and garner nominations come awards time.