Review: ‘Saltburn’

By Alexandra Murphy-O’Connor

Saltburn. The family estate of the aristocratic Catton family. Year? 2007. Eventful? Absolutely. Sexy, psychotic, and cathartic, this film keeps you on your toes with every frame, constantly making you question which character you should rely on most. Perfectly balanced with dark humour, shock, and racy scenes, Emerald Fennell’s gothic psychological thriller is certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

The scene is set: Oxford University. Liverpudlian loner Oliver (Barry Keoghan) has a challenging start to his first term, unable to break into the boarding school cliques, until he meets bewitching ‘it boy’ Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Felix takes his new acquaintance under his wing, playing into his hero complex. He invites Oliver to spend a ‘casual’ summer with his family at his palatial home, Saltburn (apparently a favourite of Waugh’s according to Felix, a nod to the influence of Brideshead Revisited). The Cattons appear perfectly whimsical from the outside, but soon cracks in their façade begin to appear, and the audience is confronted with them through the eyes of the protagonist, who is adjusting to this satirically absurd way of life.

The first member of the household we meet is the butler, Duncan. As icy as Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, he lurks in the shadows of every corner of the house with his piercing gaze. One can feel his presence before it is made known, expertly reflecting the unnerving thrill of a gothic thriller novel.

After a whirlwind tour of the ‘blue’ room, the long gallery, the bedrooms (where Henry VIII allegedly had a great sleep!), the grand staircase – you get the idea – we finally meet the Cattons. Deliciously eccentric, we immediately fall in love with Rosamund Pike’s Elspeth and Richard E. Grant’s Sir James, Felix’s parents. Flanking Felix is his alluring sister Venetia, played by film-debut actress Allison Oliver, and his frosty cousin Farley (Archie Madekwe). Each of these characters develop a unique relationship with Oliver.

Modernity seems like it doesn’t fit into this world of airs and graces, and tradition

The narrative develops into a wrestle for emotional power. Chilling and, at some points, sadistic, the layers of falsehoods are slowly unfurled, with echoes of Brideshead Revisited, All About Eve (1950) and The Secret History. This latter book serves as an American parallel for Saltburn, as we enter the story through the eyes of the protagonist, whom we do not entirely trust. We see the object of their infatuation – Henry and Felix respectively – through rose-tinted spectacles. Both narrators also hide their origins in their ambition to be accepted, embodying a new persona the first time they live away from home. The Secret History and Saltburn are also both set in modern periods (the 1980s and 2007), but the main characters seem outdated in their contemporary setting, drawing attention to issues such as class and privilege in the modern age.

The cinematography is spectacular. It captures the hazy colours of British summers, combining the subdues palettes of Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Merchant-Ivory films with the epic scale of The Great Gatsby (2013). It is easy to get lost in the timelessness established by tuxedoes and stately homes, yet we are forced back into 2007 – living memory for most – by the stark red and blue artificial lighting haunting many scenes. It creates an eeriness found in more recent psychological thrillers, namely Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (2021), which has equally shocking twists and turns. Modernity seems like it doesn’t fit into this world of airs and graces, and tradition.

No one who comes out of that cinema will be able to hear ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ the same way again

The Hitchcock-esque visuals are enthralling. From the lavish party akin to the masquerade ball in To Catch a Thief (1955), (and Elspeth’s gold dress echoing Gracy Kelly’s ball gown), to more subtle details for eagle-eyed viewers. Antlers ostensibly signify prey, and without giving too much away, several figures are framed with a giant Minotaur statue looming over them. The statue is at the centre of a labyrinth, and with the continual references to Harry Potter, one cannot watch the labyrinth scene without thinking of the ‘Triwizard Tournament’ and expecting there to be a bewitched Krum around the corner or animate vines trying to trip the characters up.

The intimacy scenes throughout the film also come as quite a shock and make me dispute the film’s ‘15’ age rating due to their outrageous explicitness. Keoghan certainly gives a committed performance to Oliver’s capriciousness. In fact, every single character is detestable, and one is not left entirely sympathetic with the course of the events that unfurl. One thing is for certain, though: no one who comes out of that cinema will be able to hear ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ the same way again.

Image: Kristina Delp

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