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“Saltburn” Rubs Itself into Our Wounds

Film poster: “Saltburn”

Saltburn (Emerald Fennell, 2023) 1½ out of 4 stars.

In her second feature film, writer/director Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) crafts an occasionally fascinating and often frustrating hot mess of a movie. With shades of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, it also manages to feel derivative, what originality it offers overshadowed by familiarity. Despite these shortcomings, Saltburn showcases strong performances, especially from lead actor Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin).

The movie is divided into three parts: Oxford University, the titular estate, and the ending reveal of why what has happened has happened. Each section has a different tone, particularly the first one, which appears initially to be about one young man’s fascination for another. But when we leave the staid academic world for the upper-class one, Saltburn shifts into high bizarro gear and, for a while, becomes somewhat lively. For a short while …

Barry Keoghan in SALTBURN ©Amazon Studios

Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, something of a social outcast upon his arrival at college and, we are led to believe, from a family of limited means, with parents suffering from addiction. Right away, he is besotted with the wealthy, handsome, and very popular Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, 2 Hearts), but given their different circles, there’s no way the two shall properly meet. A chance flat tire changes that.

Soon, they are always together, even if Felix’s friends (and many girlfriends) find their fellowship odd. Among those who give Olive a frosty reception is Felix’s arrogant cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, Midsommar), who just happens to also be the only main character of color in the story (which briefly factors into the plot at one point). Despite this, and even with Felix himself beginning to cool on Oliver, a tragedy in young Mr. Quick’s life earns him an invitation to spend the summer holidays at the Catton family mansion. End Part I.

Jacob Elordi in SALTBURN ©Amazon Studios

At Saltburn, we meet its reigning lord and lady, Sir James (Richard E. Grant, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie) and wife Elspeth (Rosamund Pike, Radioactive), along with Felix’s sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver). Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) makes an appearance, as well, as a “dear old friend” who has, by now, outstayed her welcome. There’s also an imperious butler, Duncan (Paul Rhys, Widow Clicquot), established early on in a way we hope will lead to some sort of payoff later (spoiler: it doesn’t).

From there, Fennell engages in a series of cinematic shenanigans rooted in the comedy of class conflict and arch commentary on British aristocracy, most of which have been treated before in other works with greater finesse. There’s also a number of what are meant to be sexually fluid moves in a Machiavellian chess game, but which come across more as dictated by the needs of the screenplay’s ultimate goals than as organic to any established character profiles. Drinking semen out of a bathtub? Check! Smearing menstrual blood over one’s face? Check! Copulating with the dirt on top of a fresh grave? Check mate!

Rosamund Pike in SALTBURN ©Amazon Studios

The result is a muddle of a self-satisfied narrative that ends up no place of great consequence. Even the final twist fails to turn the preceding two hours into anything meaningful. What remains is the sensation of loss one experiences when all that has come before has led to naught. It’s salt in our wounds, and burns mightily.

[Saltburn premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. I am reviewing it out of the 2023 Middleburg Film Festival.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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