Saltburn (review) – BFI London Film Festival 2023

12th October 2023

Saltburn arrives in cinemas nationwide on Nov 17.

Spoiler Free Review

Great Britain is a country built on a grand divide in opportunity, wealth and privilege. It’s a divide we proudly exported worldwide under Empire and continues to see Britain largely governed by inherited power and a “who you know” culture of old-school ties. This wealth divide gives birth to Bullingdon Club leaders like Boris Johnson, who believe they are above the rules they dictate and many business leaders who talk about diversity in soundbites with little understanding of the communities they speak of. Many films have sought to explore and uncover the wealth divide at the heart of British life, from If….(1968) to The Riot Club (2014), with each dissecting the inherited power and privilege at the heart of the British state. Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn joins this prestigious club of films as it joyously takes a scalpel to the British wealth divide before sprinkling lashings of salt on the open wounds.

In her sophomore feature, Fennell builds upon the dark satire and gender politics of her breakout film Promising Young Women, turning her attention to a promising young man from Merseyside, Oliver Quick, the outstanding Barry Keoghan. Quick has just started his University life at Oxford, his background and accent immediately classing him as an outsider in its hallowed halls of privilege and wealth. But while Oliver Quick may, at first glance, appear to be a mere dormouse among the panelled walls and grand stairwells of Oxford, his quiet persona hides a far more ruthless desire to climb the class ladder.

As Oliver weaves his way through University life, it’s not long before he meets Felix (Jacob Elordi), a handsome and wealthy stud whom he has admired from afar for weeks. Initially taking pity on him, Felix invites Oliver to join his round table of rich friends, including his cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), who lives off Felix’s family wealth. A pet project of sorts, Oliver finds himself at an enticing table of opportunities as Felix embraces him while pitying him at the same time. But when Felix invites Oliver to stay for the summer at his family home, Saltburn, with his father, Sir James (Richard E Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), ex-model mother Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), and Farleigh, a game of deadly chess ensues with Oliver a pawn determined to become a king.

With lashings of delightfully dark comedy, Fennel’s film, like Triangle of Sadness, isn’t just interested in dissecting wealth and privilege but the power and political gameplay that leads to the throne. As a result, Saltburn feels like Game of Thrones meets Brideshead Revisited as the chess game that starts at Oxford and continues at Saltburn reaches its delightfully dark and wicked climax. Fennel’s film bathes in the sultry summer sun of an estate inhabited by eccentric, polite, yet obnoxious people who lack any understanding of the world outside the gates; Saltburn is their kingdom, their castle and their prison as they lounge, eat, drink and discuss the beauty of their privilege. Here, an outstanding ensemble cast relishes every word of dialogue with outrageous gags and conversations demonstrating their separation from reality. But it’s Keoghan and Elordi who steal the show.

Keoghan’s Oliver is a glorious puzzle box of behaviours as he slowly adapts to the world around him, never allowing us into his innermost thoughts and desires as he flits between confidence, vulnerability, humility and devilish charm. Is he in love with Elordi’s Felix, or merely obsessed with his beauty, position and popularity? Elordi’s Felix relishes his power over Oliver by using his status and wealth to build friendships based on favour and manipulation rather than love or attachment. Here, Oliver’s sexual desire for Felix remains unrequited, leading to uncomfortable acts of voyeurism and omnisexual liaisons with everyone Felix holds close as sex, power, control, and obsession combine into a dangerous cocktail of heated encounters.

Saltburn is the story of two worlds that coexist uncomfortably in one country and the ruthless, manipulative, and dark behaviours that sit between the two. Visually stunning with performances to match, Saltburn is a wickedly sharp, proudly queer and gloriously decadent film that pulls its audience into its world of wealth, privilege and beauty before joyously carving it up like a rare fillet steak on Victorian bone china.

  • Saltburn | United Kingdom | 2023


Visually stunning with performances to match, Saltburn is a wickedly sharp, proudly queer and gloriously decadent film that pulls its audience into its world of wealth, privilege and beauty before joyously carving it up like a rare fillet steak on Victorian bone china.

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