The tantalizing queer tension between Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi keeps you wishing for more
Story: Set in the mid-2000s, the film follows Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) who is offered a place at Oxford University. He’s withdrawn but observes the aristocratic Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) from afar. Felix has everyone drawn to him; Oliver too begins to crave his company and soon enough the two strike a friendship. After Oliver confides in him the stories of his troubled upbringing, Felix invites him to spend the summer at the countryside Catton family estate, Saltburn.
Review: It’s been barely three years since Emerald Fennell’s breakthrough debut, Promising Young Woman, which garnered her an Oscar for best screenplay. Fennell returns with Saltburn, a kooky, gaudy and deliberately delirious send-up of the wealthy and elite. However, as much as the film is taken by its intense, voyeuristic obsession with the rich that spirals to uncontrollable extremes, the screenplay evinces not much interest in developing this coterie, contained unto itself, with depth, wit or intelligence. She tends to treat most of them as a bunch of naïve, unsuspecting airheads who cannot quite fathom the real intent of an intruder and the damage he poses. Of course, they are encased in their own neat fancy little bubble but the utter, oblivious detachment from the motivations of others that Fennell suggests in them indicates an arch, annoying authorial arrogance that robs its characters of layers, complacent with the giddying exteriors she is able to conjure.
Surely, this is a dazzling, intoxicating world Fennell spins for us, aided by Suzie Davies’ brilliantly immersive production design and Sophie Canale’s costume design. This is a world that refreshingly doesn’t give a fig leaf about moral dissolution and sexual impropriety. But all the wickedness in the posturing of Saltburn’s characters doesn’t wholly translate into anything that reveals more than a frivolous, fleeting peek.
The undercurrents of queer tension with which Saltburn is spiked strains to endow it with a restless ambiguity. Admittedly, there’s something genuinely slippery and teasing with which the film approaches the relationships among men and women, training its eye on the power differentials and poking out a maddening sexual politics liberated from the binds of morality. In the contemporary landscape where sexuality is almost always strapped to binaries and a strong sense of limited definition, Saltburn posits a series of fascinating and playful transgressions. As if imbibing from Felix, Oliver learns to suck everyone around him into his heady, potentially destructive orbit. He seeks to climb the class ladder and gain entry into the rarefied club he so desperately, longingly stares at from the sidelines. What makes him a cut above the rest is the ways in which he orchestrates his breaking into this exclusive clique. Oliver weaponizes his projected servility and coy worship in a manner that swiftly ushers in the family’s annihilation. He taps precisely the things about him the Cattons don’t deem worthy of taking into account. That he is perceived as quite possibly yet another of Felix’s disposable playthings, upon whom he has opted to pour his sympathy, becomes Oliver’s mightiest asset. His purported ultimate insignificance eventually pushes the residents of Saltburn into a state of precarity.
Jacob Elordi brings the requisite breezy, swoony enticing edge to Felix, easily convincing anyone why both boys and girls are so irresistibly pulled towards him, despite abundantly being aware of their inevitably trifling status in any relationship with him. Felix has that magnetism to make someone feel seen when they are with him, creating an illusion in them that they can be as cool to get and deserve his attention. But he also has a similar ease with which he feels perfectly entitled to cast them aside if they no longer suit his whim. This is what Venetia, Felix’s sister (Alison Oliver who kills it in a sensational climactic monologue) and his cousin, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) caution Oliver about. That he cannot last for long on the staggering estate of Saltburn is flung as a reminder to him.
Saltburn is driven by a sexual heat, its proceedings catalysed by a seemingly harmless decision of Felix to bring his friend home. Little has he measured the scope of Oliver’s intent. Where the film makes major slip-ups is in the writing of all the characters Oliver seems smitten with. While several characters helpfully insinuate Felix’s habits, he stays elusive, perhaps intentionally. But the stubbornness of one angle with which the film looks at him turns him bereft of specificities that can make him memorable. If there’s any character with an enduring presence, it is Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), his mother, an ex-model socialite who swirls in and around the manor in gorgeous kaftans and slinky evening dresses. Armed with the best lines, Pike’s Elspeth practically hijacks the film whenever she pops up, lacing the film with a much-needed delicious snarkiness. When she hints that she might have inspired Pulp to write Common People, it is to Pike’s credit that it is perfectly believable. It is in the scenes when most of the characters are together and the actors lob about the tartness and awkwardness that Saltburn truly sparkles. A particular standout scene arrives late in the film. It’s a fateful morning shrouded in mourning; the characters try to put up a front as if it is just another ordinary day. The attendant struggles to pull the curtains together and the scene is tipped for an eruption. The masterfully taut way Fennell stages this point of rupture is among the film’s high points.
Verdict: Burnished by Linus Sandgren’s exhilarating cinematography, Saltburn has an undeniable oozing style and visual swagger, fetching a winking gleam to the otherwise predictable surfaces in the writing. Even psychologically, the film becomes disinterested and content to remain skin-deep, the lumpy, unnecessarily drawn-out exposition in the finale leaching it of any remaining nuance left. The preoccupation with class anxieties in this film is as paper-thin as last year’s Ruben Ostlund’s Oscar-nominated film, Triangle of Sadness. This is a highly curated fever dream that comes off as too designed to cull out show-stopping moments but leaves little for the viewer to take away and chew on.