Arts & Culture

Movie Review: Saltburn

This just in: The rich are awful.

Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn wears its influences on its sleeve. First and foremost, there’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a slippery con artist who ingratiates himself to a charming layabout and his girlfriend vacationing in Italy. Then there are bits of The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited, and even a skosh of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. This film should’ve been catnip for me. I love films and books about glamorous, careless rich people and the poor people who try to infiltrate their cloistered world. I also loved Fennell’s first film, the acid-dipped Promising Young Woman. But somehow, Saltburn just didn’t quite do it for me.

The Ripley character here is Oliver Quick, played by Barry Keoghan, the talented Irish actor with a working class mien and an intriguing inscrutability that Fennell leans into. His Oliver is a student at Oxford University, but he’s not of the manor born like most of his classmates; he doesn’t fit in. At meals, he has nowhere to sit until he finds himself next to Michael (Ewan Mitchell) another outsider—a gloomy and unsavory boy who assumes, with a bit of unmasked glee, that they’ll be stuck with each other all three years of Oxford.

Instead, Oliver is fascinated by Felix (Jacob Elordi)—an impossibly tall and handsome aristocrat who doles out kindness and attention like he’s imparting a special gift.

One day, Felix’s bicycle gets a flat tire and Oliver happens to be there to rescue him. He offers up his own bike so Felix won’t be late to class and even volunteers to schlep Felix’s broken bike back to campus. Felix accepts this gift like he expected it, kissing Oliver on the head, affectionately calling him “Ollie!” and even shouting, “I love you!” before he glides off. It’s no surprise that Oliver is even more smitten.

That night, at the campus pub, Oliver is sitting with Michael when he spots Felix and his posse of glamazons across from him. They beckon him over and he instantly dumps Michael, whom he hated to begin with.

From there, he gets accepted into Felix’s inner sanctum—simply because Felix is the sun and everyone else revolves around him.

This particularly rankles Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a close family friend who lives with Felix’s family. If you’re playing the home game, Farleigh is pretty much the Philip Seymour Hoffman character here, with a few noticeable exceptions (he’s Black, extremely hot, and gay) but with the same mirthful, almost performative disdain for the poor. But he has no choice. What Felix says goes.

“He’ll get tired of you,” Michael warns.

In fact, the opposite occurs—Felix and Oliver grow close. And when Oliver tells Felix that he can’t go home for the holidays—his mother is an alcoholic and his father just died—Felix insists that he come home with him, to Saltburn, an actual castle in the English countryside. (Let me just take a moment to say that people still living in castles in the 21st century blows this Yank’s mind.)

Oliver meets the family: Felix’s happily clueless father (Richard E. Grant), his bulimic (and ever-horny) sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and his imperiously beautiful mother, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike). Farleigh is also there, too—a permanent fixture. And there’s a house guest Pamela (an extended cameo by Carey Mulligan), a somewhat tacky and needy family friend whom everyone is sick of.

The way they get rid of Pamela, ushering her out the door, while making it seems like it’s her idea—they simply won’t take no for an answer!—gives you a sense of this family. They pretend to be kind, but there are limits to their noblesse oblige. In the end, only blood relatives are safe from banishment.

This all sounds great, right? And lots of it is great: The cast, the opulent sets, Oliver’s voyeurism that we are able to live through vicariously. Jacob Elordi may not quite have the golden glow of Ripley-era Jude Law, but he is quite convincing as this eternal object of desire. And Pike uses her steeliness to great effect. Grant is funny—and later pathetic—as the family’s grinning idiot.

But Saltburn has several problems. For one, its depiction of the very rich feels shallow and overly broad. Felix’s mother moans that she hates ugly people. Guests are treated as playthings. After a tragedy occurs, the family all sit down to lunch, standing on ceremony til the bitter end. Venetia absently pours herself an entire bottle of wine, glassy-eyed as it overflows onto the table. It’s a “aren’t these people the absolute worst!” moment that doesn’t ring true.

(The faux graciousness of both Felix and Elspeth, on the other hand, is actually interesting.)

Furthermore, the film tries very hard to scandalize us. My stance on sex scenes (pro!) is well documented, but here they seem emptily provocative. Kink for kink’s sake. (Be forewarned, you’ll never look at a bathtub drain the same way.)

And finally, the film has a giant Oliver problem.

We know Tom Ripley is a con artist from the start, but Oliver is a bit more elusive. As an audience, our instinct is to identify with him—and to worry he will be a pawn of this casually cruel family. At Oxford, we see him doing some not nice things (trading up from Michael, for example) and showing a surprisingly formidable backbone (there’s a moment where he lords his intellectual superiority over Farleigh in class). He doesn’t seem like a blushing naif. Yes, when he arrives at Saltburn, he’s wide-eyed and dutiful, calling everyone sir and ma’am, saying “sorry” so often he gets on Venetia’s nerves. But he doesn’t seem like anyone’s victim. He stalks around the castle like he belongs there (he sends back his eggs when they aren’t prepared properly) and proves to be something of a master seducer, despite his relatively ordinary appearance. The film makes note of the fact—and later shows us (!)—that he’s well endowed.

Eventually, Oliver’s actions, if not his motivations, become perfectly clear. I never figured out why Oliver did the things he did. He just…did them. This is no minor flaw. A character who acts without context or motivation is not compelling to me. Saltburn tries to shock us, again and again—instead, it ends up being a bit of an empty suit.