Film Review: Saltburn
Director: Emerald Fennell
Lucky Chap Entertainment and Lie Still
In Theaters: 11.22
As Maestro makes a big splash as a triumphant sophomore outing for Bradley Cooper as a director, he’s not the only one who has been put in the position of having to prove that lightning can strike twice this season. Emerald Fennell, the writer/director of the brilliant Promising Young Woman, has just released her second feature film, Saltburn, and sadly, it doesn’t live up to the promise.
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin, Dunkirk) is in his first year at Oxford University as a poor scholarship student struggling to fit in with the wealthy elite when he meets Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, Euphoria, Priscilla), a young aristocrat who is the big man on campus. When Oliver helps Felix out of a jam by lending him his bicycle to get to class, the two become fast friends. Felix hears that Oliver has nowhere to go for the summer, and he extends Oliver an invitation to join him at Saltburn, the sprawling estate owned by his eccentric family. Oliver jumps at the opportunity and spends the summer basking in the privileged and decadent life of the 1%. The more Oliver becomes accustomed to his new lifestyle, the more he finds that he needs it—and Felix, who means more to Oliver than he’s able to let on—will do anything to keep them both in his life.
Where Promising Young Woman was a sizzlingly original film that was timely and thought provoking, Saltburn is a rather uninspired and poorly disguised imitation of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Oliver and Felix mirroring Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley and Jude Law’s Dick Greenleaf to such an extent that it’s tempting to call it a remake. As a director, Fennell impresses with plenty of atmosphere and sumptuous visuals, though the film runs a good 15 minutes too long. As a writer, she’s simply cutting and pasting, putting a comedic spin on things and dialing the debauchery and shock value up to 11.
The second half of the film, which becomes so preoccupied with trying to provide one “that did not just happen” moment after another that what is trying to play as satire starts to feel like full on parody. The most frustrating part of all of this is that Fennell is such a strong storyteller that the viewer can’t help but be pulled in by it all, and those who are unfamiliar with Ripley may walk away thinking they have seen something bold and new, much like people who’d never even heard of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy actually thought that Joker was fresh and creative. Even if you just go with it and take the derivative nature of the film out of the equation, however, Saltburn is simply trying a bit too hard and throws in too much melodrama and one too many twists to be truly satisfying.
Keoghan gives a terrific performance, putting everything he’s got into the role and then some, and he does admirable work at keeping the audience transfixed by the fierce machinations of Oliver’s mind and trying to guess what he’s thinking and what he wants, which is sadly hampered by the fact that it’s all too obvious to the section of the audience that’s familiar with Highsmith. Elordi is wonderfully charismatic as Felix, and perhaps the biggest differences in the two stories is that Felix is much more likable than Dickie Greenleaf, making Oliver that much more difficult to root for as he uses him. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl, I Care A Lot) and Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) are divine as Felix’s parents, Lady Elspeth and Sir James, and the dynamic between Elspeth and Oliver is the most interesting story element.
Saltburn is a technically impressive work demonstrating Fennell’s directorial talent and that she’s very much still a promising, young filmmaker. If you’re someone who can’t resist a decadent British soap opera, Saltburn delivers enough as a wild and entertaining bit of caustic fluff. It’s not a disaster, and in fact, it’s likely to develop a bit of a cult following for the mix of envelope-pushing sexual taboos and camp value. It’s simply difficult not to feel like you’re watching a straight-A student turn in a paper that’s been copied and reworded from an existing one and leaving out the passion and intellect that made them stand out in the first place. It may get a passing grade, though it’s hardly a well-earned one. –Patrick Gibbs