Film Review- Saltburn


A movie whose opening credits are backed up by the pomp of `Zadok the Priest` is clearly going to be somewhat off the scale and Saltburn is definitely that. It is quite an eccentric film that is by turns serious, odd and funny. I’m not sure it always knows quite what it wants to be (this is a good thing) but as the blurb describes it as a psychological comedy I’ll go with that. I do know it is very interesting and also difficult to review without letting slip its ultimate destination. I’m not sure it goes far enough sometimes, at other times it seems the opposite but a story like this demands a slightly messy film because messy is interesting.


The fact that it’s presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio - a narrower screen width than most modern films - to give an impression of `peeping in` will probably irritate some cinema goers though it actually does work well with the themes. . The film shifts tone several times and it takes till about twenty minutes from the end for you to be able to think “Oh that’s what’s been going on”.  You have to see it to find out though and its not one of those twists that comes out of the blue. It’s been hiding in plain sight the whole time. No, it’s not all a dream though there are times when it could be. The cinematography is distinctive too adding warmth to these quite cold characters and drawing us into this stew of emotions bubbling in the vast house. The latter is another star of the film, it’s lengthy corridors, wood panelled walls, multiple paintings and general grandeur . despite the vastness of the estate somehow instills a claustrophobic sense to proceedings. The picture is also bathed in rich colour to give it a period feel even though that period is only seventeen years ago

Set initially in 2006, it follows Liverpool born loner Oliver Quick as he tries initially unsuccessfully to make friends at Oxford University and becomes fixated from afar on the year’s golden boy Felix Catton who has the money, the looks, the personality to be something of a social epicentre. When Oliver helps him one day by lending him his bike, Felix befriends him and despite not too subtle hints from others in the latter’s circle Oliver is sucked into this world of privilege and entitlement.  At first it seems as if the group treat him rather like a pet but as time passes he somehow inveigles himself into first Felix’s circle and then his family.

For a while you think you know where this is headed. We see how obsessed Oliver is becoming with Felix, we see Felix being a good, supportive friend and their bond grows after Oliver tells him about the death of his father. He is invited to Saltburn the very, very large country estate where Felix’s eccentric family resides. From hereon in we’re in a different territory and this rag tag family prove to each be amusingly odd in their own way. This is the funniest section of the film and however gross matters sometimes become you’re still smiling. Gradually though developments best left to discover on viewing darken the mood and the last thirty minutes or so is a very black comedy indeed.

What I like about Saltburn is its absolute refusal to be pigeonholed. Just when you think you’ve got the measure of it, along comes something you just don’t expect. Each of the characters has a secretive, furtive side and though they hide behind their polite mannerisms there is also a viciousness and also a sadness to their lives. As for Oliver his character takes quite a journey as the scenes shift; again it’s not for spoilering.

A great cast do justice to and further elevate Emerald Fennell’s terrific dialogue. Barry Keoghan adds yet another gem to his ever impressive roster of varied parts as Oliver twists his way through the narrative. The actor has to evolve his performance reflecting Oliver's changing perspective and its done so subtly that it constantly surprises   Rosamund Pike is tremendous as the free spirited Lady Catton for whom  everything must be beautiful and who gets alot of the fIlm's most arch lines. Richard E Grant as her husband brings a lovely child like quality to a man who doesn't want to confront anything close to reality.

There are fabulous turns too from Jacob Elordi who imbues Felix with the qualities that draw people to him yet hints at a vapidity underneath.  Alison Oliver allures and puts as Felix’s strange sister and an excellent Archie Madekwe shines as his sarcastic best friend. Hiding under bizarre clothes Carey Mulligan is hilarious as ` dear Pamela`, a family friend who has outstayed her welcome and steals scenes easily. Plus Paul Rhys is the butler who dispatches tiny looks at just about everyone and seems as if he has always lived in the house.

The film explores social class and the mannerisms that go with it, the differences between rich and poor and the perspective these subjects give the Catton family all through the prism of how real emotions bubble under the surface. Its also about excess whether the emotional excess of obsession or the physical excess of the very rich and privileged. Had Oliver’s intent been clear from the outset the results would be different and there are occasions when the audience will not understand why he does certain things. One review I read suggested that Farleigh might have been a more interesting character to place at the centre of the film. He has lived at Saltburn for a long time though is only a relative not a direct family member. You get a sense early on he is competing to keep his place and this is amplified when Oliver arrives for the summer. Mind you there is real on screen chemistry between Barry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe – one scene where they are talking on a sofa suggests a direction the movie does not take. After all Fairleigh has what Oliver is aspiring to have and the former vanishes from the story when he could have been used to ultimate effect. The final scene – whose contents I can’t give away- might have been even more surprising had Fairleigh suddenly turned up to deal his hand.

As far as the super rich family are concerned Saltburn leaves it to the viewer to decide whether we like them or not (though we are amused by them of course). We never learn how these riches were acquired and the Catton’s only crime seems to be that they are living in their own world and each are quite odd as you might expect. This life is shown as being somewhat hollow though constantly fun, a restless existence in which the kind of real work that engages most of our adult brains is replaced by a litany of parties, meals and indulgence. The last act may seem over the top to some but I think its in keeping with what has gone before. Bear in mind too that all we are watching is Oliver's take on the story- there are clips during the film of him talking after most of the events- so if there are aspects that seem to tail off that's why.

Occasionally the symbolism can be a bit too overstated (especially when we get to a maze) and the logic of character’s actions hard to follow. Yet Saltburn is an absorbing film beautifully shot and superbly acted with enough material to enjoy so you can forgive the occasional indulgences and wallow in the results.

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