Saltburn review | Emerald Fennell’s sophomore film is gloriously trashy and sexy

saltburn barry keoghan
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Barry Keoghan’s Oliver spends an unforgettable summer at his friend’s lavish mansion. Here’s our Saltburn review. 

It was always going to be exceptionally hard for Emerald Fennell to follow her breakthrough film Promising Young Woman. It was a polarising film; some adored it, some hated it, but nevertheless, it brought Fennell an Oscar for her writing.

Her sophomore feature couldn’t be further removed from Promising Young Woman’s politics. If that film really burrowed into the female experience, Saltburn puts masculinity under a microscope. Thankfully, Fennell aims for a more camp than intellectual approach to the lives of young men. 

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) arrives at Oxford University, all green and cute. He has no friends, but quickly weasels his way in with the cool (read: rich) kids, including Felix (Jacob Elordi). At the end of the year, Felix invites Oliver, who has just faced a personal tragedy, to spend the summer with him at Saltburn, his family’s lavish, gothic mansion. 

saltburn jacob elordi
Credit: Warner Bros

The rest of the film follows Oliver as he simultaneously yearns to fit in with Felix’s flamboyant family, which includes his mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E Grant, channelling the same energy as in The Lesson) and his cousins Venetia (Alison Oliver) and Farleigh (Gran Turismo’s Archie Madekwe). 

“Lots of people get lost in Saltburn,” a servant tells Oliver. Felix’s cousin mentions that he’s different from “the last one”. Carey Mulligan’s Pamela came over and simply never left. People really are at the heart of Saltburn, the film and the location. 

Despite being outrageously entertaining, Fennell has written Saltburn with a rather heavy hand. The narrative feels familiar and Fennell often, needlessly, holds the audience’s hand and explains far too much of the plot, which isn’t complex enough to warrant such measures. Thankfully, it’s easy to forgive the film for that as everything else works pretty flawlessly as long as you’re not looking for anything above brainless entertainment.

As we saw in Promising Young Woman, Fennell proves again that she’s a visually dynamic filmmaker. Saltburn looks irresistibly handsome, from the arresting imagery created by careful and purposeful framing to the sumptuous production design. The story is set in 2006 and the film nails that period setting, through music and costumes. Sophie Ellis Bextor’s ‘Murder On The Dance Floor’ is featured in a particularly funny context. 

Ultimately, Saltburn is a film about absolutely nothing at all. Although it might sound like one, tha’ts not a criticism. Saltburn is pure trash, in the best possible way. It’s hugely enjoyable, even when Fennell seems to think the film is being more clever than it ends up being. Oliver’s journey, while not particularly original or surprising, is an intriguing one. 

The casting is on point too. Keoghan is the beating heart of the film. The young actor is endlessly watchable as we observe Oliver climbing the social scale and is more than matched by Priscilla’s Elordi. Elordi is effortlessly sexy and Keoghan skillfully toes the line between wanting Felix and wanting to be Felix. It’s a fascinating dynamic, crafted by two exciting up and coming actors, and anytime Saltburn cuts away from the duo, things come to a halt.  

If you go looking for deeper meaning in the bowels of Saltburn, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s hard to tell if Fennell, a privately educated woman herself, is trying to make fun of these people or if she’s truly asking for our sympathy. As a trashy, sexy thriller, Saltburn is superb, but if you’re after something a little more substantial, this isn’t it. 

Saltburn is in UK cinemas 17 November. 

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