When we first caught a glimpse of the teaser trailer for Oscar-winning writer/director Emerald Fennell’s sophomore feature, Saltburn, we thought we knew exactly what they were in for: Brideshead Revisited redux. But Fennell, who popped up in this year’s Barbie as pregnant doll Midge, has form playing with genre expectations, as anyone who went into her twist-the-knife debut feature Promising Young Woman (2020) expecting a straight-up revenge fantasy can attest.
Sure, all the pieces appear to be in place. There’s a wistfully backwards glancing narration by working-class scholarship lad Oliver Quick (The Killing of a Sacred Deer creeper Barry Keoghan), regaling us with doting, though notably ambiguous, memories of a heady summer spent at the sprawling stately English pile of the title. Then there’s fellow Oxford University student Felix Catton (Euphoria’s fluttering lashed Jacob Elordi), with whom he is somewhat besotted.
While Felix is amused by how ‘raw’ his Northern pal and attendant family tragedy are, he’d rather spend his evenings with a revolving door of inebriated young women. His similarly well-to-do mates can barely contain their curled-upper lip sneers at someone like Oliver who can’t stump up for a round of ten-plus whiskeys.
Most notably Midsommar star Archie Madekwe as Felix’s American cousin Farleigh. But there’s tension here too, given Farleigh isn’t lunch linen white like the Cattons, nor is this supposed ‘new money’ type above scrounging for their old private school cash. In this way, Farleigh views Oliver’s intrusions in both the luxurious pool lounging of a Saltburn summer and Felix’s attentions as a territorial threat, setting up danger ahead.
A handful of dust
But this isn’t the Evelyn Waugh novel. Yes, the trappings are eerily familiar, but this country mansion of exceedingly eccentric debauchery, scowled over by Paul Rhys’ ever-present top butler Duncan, isn’t quite what you might expect. For one thing, this isn’t inter-world war, but specifically 2006, set to the banging tunes of Arcade Fire, The Killers and MGMT.
Borrowing a dash of panache from Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, too, there’s something not quite right about the players and the game in hand. These include a fabulously camp turn from Rosamunde Pike, clearly relishing her plummily baneful bon mots as arch quote-spitting lady of the manor Elspeth, and Richard E Grant as her dotty but occasionally explosive husband Sir James.
Then there’s Allison Oliver as Felix’s sister Venetia, struggling with an eating disorder and not above midnight seductions of the new house guest. A trick that Oliver is more than capable of puling himself when seeking to neutralise Farleigh’s countermoves. Promising Young Woman star Carey Mulligan also pops up as a leather and smoky-eye parading, overstaying house guest who may or may not be the target of Russian gangsters.
That tantalising hint of menace pervades all here as Fennell, used to tossing this handful of old moneyed dust around having depicted Camilla in The Crown and attending the haughty halls of Oxford herself, pulls the Plantagenet rug out from under all involved in the final act.
While Saltburn may not be as bracingly original as Fennell’s debut, it is wicked fun. If it sags a touch in overshooting the perfect ending, it’s worth it for where that propels us, via a labyrinthian hedge maze of the sort anyone who’s seen The Shining should avoid, during a Bacchanalian party of bad fortune.
When Oliver’s luck spins, the film wins, and I’ll be thinking of a top-of-his-game Keoghan’s dance moves for quite some time.
Saltburn showed as part of the Adelaide Film Festival 2023. It releases in Australian cinemas on 16 November.