What To Watch This Weekend: Saltburn
What To Watch This Weekend: Saltburn

What To Watch This Weekend: Saltburn

Oscar-winning director Emerald Fennell’s second film is a stylish tale of privilege and desire. Starring actor-of-the-moment Jacob Elordi and the always-excellent Barry Keoghan in his first starring role, Saltburn explores power and class in 2000s England in a new, unexpected way. Here’s why SL’s managing lifestyle editor Heather Steele thinks it’s well worth a watch…
By Heather Steele

Until her first feature film Promising Young Woman hit cinemas in 2021, Emerald Fennell was best known for playing Camilla Parker Bowles in series three and four of The Crown and for writing for Killing Eve. Starring Carey Mulligan as a woman hell-bent on revenge following the rape and death of her schoolfriend Nina, Promising Young Woman saw Fennell win a Bafta, Critics Choice award, Writers’ Guild award and Oscar for best original screenplay.

Since then, Camilla has been played by Olivia Williams in Peter Morgan’s Netflix hit – which also returns to screens this week – and we’ve only seen Fennell play a small, cult role as pregnant doll Midge in this year’s undoubted smash Barbie. Instead, she’s been working on her second film, Saltburn, a twisted film that critics have compared to everything from Brideshead Revisited to The Talented Mr Ripley.

The drama centres on Oliver Quick (The Banshees of Inishirin’s Barry Keoghan), a talented bursary student from Merseyside, who has arrived at Oxford University for freshers’ week. Set in 2006 – with the nostalgic, pulsing soundtrack to match – Oliver struggles to fit in with his braying, hedonistic classmates. He doesn’t even manage to impress his personal tutor (a typically dry Reece Sheersmith), who seems disgusted rather than impressed when Oliver reveals he’s already devoured the entire year’s reading list over the summer. Destined to spend his time away from lectures and the library in the company of a handful of social rejects, a chance encounter with his cohort’s most popular student appears to change his university trajectory for the better.

Felix Catton is everything Oliver is not. Played by towering Australian Jacob Elordi (Euphoria), Felix is charming and aristocratic – ‘pulling’ a different girl every night and gliding through his first year at Oxford with ease and certainty. Despite his public schoolboy mannerisms and puffed-up confidence, Felix has a vulnerable, empathetic side and takes pity on ‘nobody’ Oliver – christening him Ollie along the way – while every other student wrinkles their nose in repulsion. Soon enough, Ollie is thrown into the fray of pub outings, the highs and lows of drug-taking and the pomp of end-of-term balls, all the while slowly revealing to Felix his working-class roots and distressing family situation back up north. After a traumatic event at home renders Ollie homeless for the summer holidays, Felix invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling home.

It's here, in the magnificent surroundings of the estate, that Ollie becomes entangled in the intricate web of privilege and desire that defines the Catton family. We’re introduced to Elsbeth (Rosamund Pike), Felix’s beautiful but fickle mother; Richard E. Grant as his crazy-haired father Sir James; and his younger sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), who is introduced as having an eating disorder and sex addiction. While the family does its best to make their odd new lodger feel at home, Felix’s loathsome cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), another Oxford student, bowls up to continue taunting Ollie and there are some amusing scenes with Pamela (Carey Mulligan), a fellow house guest who has outstayed her welcome. Throw in a truly terrifying butler, and what unfolds is a beautifully shot tale of intrigue, exploring the complexities of class, wealth and the allure of a world where nothing is as it seems.

I went into the preview screening with very little sense of what the main scenes set inside the grounds of Saltburn entailed, so I’m reluctant to give much more away, as most of the enjoyment of the film came from the deep tension of not knowing what on earth was going to happen next. What I will say, is that there are scenes that are in turn sexy, twisted, shocking and horrifying – to the point where I was enjoying the gasps from some audience members. I can see why Keoghan – who is excellent in this – chose Ollie as his first leading role, not least because some of the more surprising scenes are sure to follow him deep into his career and will be seared into your brain long after the film ends. Multifaceted and meaty, Ollie is many things to many people, and keeps the audience guessing his motivations and past until the very end – and his final scene is one that’s sure to leave audiences divided.

In fact, the whole cast is great – especially Grant and Pike as a pair of humorously grotesque parents – but, for me, Elordi is the true star of the show. As someone who also started university in 2006, I enjoyed the tell-tale presence of his gap-year eyebrow piercing – and he has the mannerisms, plummy accent and carefree spirit of the super wealthy down to a tee. Much of the film centres on longing of different natures, and Elordi is the perfect foil for all Ollie’s ambitions and desires. Of course, Emerald Fennell isn’t the only female director he’s worked with this year. Right now, he’s also promoting Priscilla in the US alongside the film’s director Sofia Coppola, where early reviews hint of another impressive performance. On the press trail once again now the Sag-Aftra strikes are on pause, we can see the rest of 2023 belonging to Elordi.

Saltburn is released in cinemas on 17th November.

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