(Directed by Emerald Fennell, 2023)
Why would any middle or working class young person accept an invitation to their aristocratic University chum’s stately pile? Every movie-goer knows that the guest will have the wrong clothes, the butler will despise them, something bad will happen and lives will be Changed Forever. There is of course the very slight chance that the young person will end-up filthy rich as a result of their visit. Perhaps that’s why they keep turning-up on foot at the magnificent iron gates, having somehow missed the serf who was sent to the station to meet them.
We’ve all seen this film before. Indeed, we at TVC saw it only last week but then it was called ‘The Lesson’ and the visitor was a tutor. As in the ‘Lesson’, the aristocratic family in ‘Saltburn’ has an elder son called Felix (here played as a blithe and gilded type by Jacob Elordi) but there’s a maze rather than a pond. As in ‘The Lesson’, the aristocratic father is played by Richard E. Grant but whereas in ‘The Lesson’ he could have been Withnail’s QC cousin, here he has nothing at all to do. Rosamund Pike has a lot more to do as Elsbeth, the family matriarch who is – for reasons which are not at all clear – quite taken with Felix’s lower class guest Oliver (Barry Keoghan). In fact, Keoghan is completely miscast. He is odd looking in a Joel-Egerton-with-a-fake-nose way but entirely without silky charm. He jars. Unaccountably, the aristocrats all love him, until they don’t. Oliver is a fish out of water everywhere – at home (in one of the best scenes he ‘pays’ a surprise visit to his parents), at Oxford, and of course, at Saltburn.
The film looks marvellous, but that’s easy. There’s Oxford porn, fashion porn and big house porn. Actually there’s plenty of real porn as well, which is ugly and completely cringy. 2000’s music is nicely used, in particular, MGMT’s ‘Time to Pretend’ during the obligatory brilliant young things’ debauched party scene, and ‘Murder on The Dance Floor’ (Sophie Ellis-Bextor) for the splendid mad dance through the house.
Alison Oliver is the fragile and rather stupid daughter Venetia and does well enough. Archie Madekwe as Farleigh, a cousin and hanger-on, is very good; he’s likeable despite himself. Reece Shearsmith appears briefly as a bootlicking tutor. Special mention goes to Ewan Mitchell as a nasty and probably insane mathematics student. The always excellent Carey Mulligan is a delight as eccentric friend of the family and another hanger-on, Pamela. (But see her in as an avenging angel in director Emerald Fennell’s sensational 2020 film, ‘Promising Young Woman’).
The film is slow to get going. There are improbabilities in the script and it’s undercooked. We don’t even know what Felix is reading at Webbe College. (Naturally Oliver is reading English). On the whole it’s amusing enough, at times shocking. Perhaps the whole thing is best thought of as a fairy tale, but it is certainly not a morality play. We have all seen this class warfare, fish-out-of-water film before and we know where it’s going. Six Degrees of Separation, The Go-Between, The Talented Mr. Ripley and – towering over even these – The Servant – got there earlier and did it better.[Minority Report: A new low in high-born squalor. Bloody and yet at the same time, anaemic. P would rather watch Accident or read Brideshead Revisited.
But not Harry Potter…]