Saltburn verges on horror – of the most sexy, dramatic, sometimes hilariously funny kind

Oscar-winning filmmaker Emerald Fennell follows her debut Promising Young Woman with suspense-driven British tale of privilege and desire Saltburn. There’s a potent dose of (very, very) dark humour injected here, writes Cat Woods.

There is burning of all varieties when the college doormat Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) transitions from being a party NFI (Not Fucking Invited) to the sympathy project of rich, handsome Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi).

A nerdy newcomer to Oxford University, Oliver is accustomed to being ignored, avoided or forgotten by students and teachers alike. Felix, like any skilled predator, sees an easy prey and with aplomb, begins his elaborate dance of baiting, playing and devouring the vulnerable Oliver.

Superficially, the plot lies somewhere between Cruel Intentions and The Great Gatsby: a collision of class politics, seduction, infatuation and the utter recklessness of entitled, privileged, rich people. As the latter, Elordi is devastatingly on point. He almost effortlessly seduces Oliver; looking him directly in the eyes, sometimes his face merely a whisper apart from Oliver’s, casually calling him “Oli” mere minutes after meeting him, inviting him to Saltburn, the family home.

‘Home’ is a modest description for what is an epic, aristocratic sprawl of regal measure. Chandeliers, candles, black tie dinners, and an eccentric cobble of extended family members greet the unsuspecting Oliver on arrival. It doesn’t take long for the existence of a hidden agenda to haunt the undertakings, though.

Saltburn verges on horror, but the most sexy, dramatic, sometimes hilariously funny twist on the genre. If that sounds familiar, it might also describe Promising Young Woman. Director and writer Emerald Fennell’s 2020 masterpiece starring Carey Mulligan is the ultimate revenge tale, revelling in the savage, clever conniving of its protagonist to deliver a deserved fate to would-be rapists and abusers. As a directorial debut, it was merciless. You want a haunting, harrowing moral vengeance story ripped from headlines? Here it is!

Knowing Fennell’s capacity to thrill, Saltburn doesn’t arrive with the sort of shock! horror! impact that another director might elicit.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel The Great Gatsby introduced a similar premise: the ordinary, unspectacular Nick Carraway proves useful only in so far as he can facilitate the handsome millionaire Jay Gatsby’s affair with Daisy Buchanan. Initially seduced by the wealth, glamour and hedonism of the rich New Yorkers that Gatsby is amongst, Carraway increasingly feels alienated and eventually leaves New York. There has been speculation since the novel was released on whether Nick Carraway was gay and so loyal to Gatsby out of unrequited sexual desire.

That notion permeates Saltburn. Oliver’s attachment to the (spectacularly attractive) Felix threatens to drive him to unimaginable lengths. In the very opening scenes, Oliver ponders whether he was in love with Felix, or just really loved him?

The answer becomes more increasingly complicated as Oliver’s facades are stripped away. Is he in love with Felix, or determined to be Felix? This is a haunting, well-acted and cleverly written new Fennell film, but it definitely takes too long for Oliver to arrive at Saltburn. If anything, some heavier editing to the first half hour would have sharpened up the running time without losing any character detail.

Pedro Almodóvar described his 2011 horror-drama film The Skin I Live In as “a horror story without screams or frights”. Saltburn is immersed in the same gothic, psychological mayhem that Almodóvar so adeptly invokes. Much like a typical Almodóvar tale, there are twisted, ghoulish agendas, carefully plotted vengeance, weaponised sex and nobody is ever as straightforward as they first appear. To press the comparison a bit more, there’s often a sneaky, dark humour within the absurdity of Almodóvar’s films. Fennell definitely adds a potent dose of (very, very) dark humour into Saltburn.

By the time the buoyant dance tune Murder On The Dancefloor strikes up, you’ll likely be snickering and slightly nauseated all at once. The early noughties Britpop soundtrack is ideally suited to the excess of champagne, cocaine, and disco ball raves that Saltburn hosts. The bittersweet nostalgia of Bloc Party and MGMT contrasts with some of the more grotesque happenings. There’s masturbation at a grave, drinking used bathwater, and menstrual blood-covered sex. If close-ups involving bodily fluids are a bridge too far, this whole film is going to be a challenge for you.

Barry Keoghan excels as the oily Oliver, Jacob Elordi easily embodies the casual luxe of Felix, Alison Oliver is Felix’s beautiful, damaged sister Venetia, and Archie Madekwe is fantastic as the snarky, sharp-tongued Farleigh. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant are predictably fantastic as Felix’s eccentric, delusional parents Elsbeth and Sir James.

Farleigh, in his typical catty fashion, looks down at Oliver in the midst of one of Saltburn’s epic costume parties and says, “This place, it’s not for you.”

Perhaps he’s right, but it would be foolish to underestimate the lengths an outsider will go to when they’ve found a sneaky way into the glamorous world they’ve been denied their whole lives. As accidents begin to mount, and funerals outpace parties, the question is how far we’ll go for love, for acceptance, or for revenge.