“Saltburn” is Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” a film that garnered five Oscar nominations and won her the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2021. The movie is most like 1999’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It is a baroque, dark, stylish sexy R-rated Gothic study which Fennell, present in person to receive the Visionary Award at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival on October 19, 2023, said was best summed up tonally by the word “vampire.” Writer/Director Fennell recommended that the film’s heartthrob Felix (Jacob Elordi) read “Brideshead Revisited” before filming began on July 16, 2022 to get an idea of the film’s tone, although “Saltburn” is set in 2006. Filming ended on September 16, 2022.
“Saltburn” is the family estate of Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”). The palatial estate was represented by Drayton House, Northamptonshire, which had never been used as a film site previously. (It may never be used again, because part of the contract with the filmmakers was that the exact location and real owners were not to be revealed.) The estate, itself, is central to the film’s success, outshining television’s Downton Abbey sets.
The 127 minute film premiered at Telluride on August 23 and opened the 67th London Film Festival on October 4th. Its positive critical reception caused the release date to be moved up in the United States to November 17th. The somewhat cryptic synopsis for the film says: “A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten.”
The plot takes us inside the world of wealth and privilege that Felix and his cousin, Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwa, “Midsommar”) occupy. Oliver can only marvel at the luxury of Saltburn, as he meets Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosalind Pike, “Gone Girl”), Felix’s father (Richard E. Grant, “Gosford Park”) and Felix’s sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, “Conversations with Friends”).
Fennell said, “I want to talk about our relationships to the things we want, and what we’ll do to get them.” She pointed out that Oliver wants to be exceptional and is particularly good at figuring out what others want and helping provide it.
This is also, prominently, the story of the haves and the have-nots. In “Promising Young Woman” Carrie Mulligan took on the good old boys’ network and the patriarchy that caused her best friend’s suicide; Carrie’s character in that film sought revenge. Here, the target is the British aristocracy and the class system in the U.K.
Oliver Quick is a loner, but he instantly keys in on the Golden Boy of Oxford, Felix Catton , a child of wealth and privilege. Not only is Felix a Catton, the wealthy family that owns Saltburn, he is 6’ 5” and gorgeous. Both girls and boys lust after Felix (Jacob Elordi, “Euphoria”). Director Fennell explained, “This film is all about detail. There are intimate close-ups. I wanted to be able to see stubble, rash, all of it.” Oliver tells us immediately that he was not in love with Felix, although he does seem obsessed with him; Oliver will do anything to become Felix’s friend.
Is Oliver’s obsession with Felix rooted in emotion or something else?
Four of the cast members have been Oscar-nominated (Grant, Keoghan, Mulligan, and Pike)
Barry Keoghan, who had his breakthrough role as Dominic Kearney in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” plays Oliver Quick, one of the have-nots. Oliver is first seen as a scholarship student at Oxford who is being befriended by the class weirdo, Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell, “High Life.”)
All of the cast are excellent, including Alison Oliver in her film debut as Felix’s beautiful but disturbed sister Venetia. Rosamind Pike, Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Richard E. Grant, Archie Malekwe, Paul Rhys (as Duncan, the butler)—everyone is spot on. One part, however, seemed to have been crafted primarily as a favor to a friend. Carrie Mulligan’s role as Poor Dear Pamela, wearing a red wig and heavy make-up, renders her almost unrecognizable. Her character could easily have been omitted.
“Saltburn” is a story about deception and self-deception. It has a slow reveal that picks up speed during and after the road trip that Felix plans as a surprise for Oliver’s birthday. This is the true turning point of the plot. Fennell noted that it spoke to “how willing we are to be deceived.”
This salacious, darkly witty follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” demonstrates that Emerald Fennell is a talent with more than one tale to tell. Her second film is provocative and sure to set off discussions. Some might protest the uber- R-rated nature of a few controversial scenes. There is a fair amount of nudity, which Director Fennell told the Q&A audience was “about grief.” She also shared that she and Barry were completely in agreement on decisions in some of the more controversial scenes, saying, “He and I are completely together. If it feels right and true, Barry is in.”
There was a reference to Heathcliff’s grief at Cathy’s death in “Wuthering Heights” to offer a defense of one scene. Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” also contained an overall tone of darkness, foreboding and fatalism. It highlighted the intense emotions and passions that drive the characters in the story and was considered controversial when published in 1847. “Wuthering Heights” challenged Victorian morality of the day and the class system. It suggested that everyone has a bad side. Both Emerald Fennell and Rosamund Pike majored in English Literature at Oxford.
SET DESIGN & COSTUMING
The castle sets are magnificent. The party that the Cattons throw for Oliver’s birthday makes the similar celebration in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” look like a backyard barbecue. Not only are the grounds of the castle gorgeous, all of the attendees are in costume. The costume designer was Sophie Canale (“Kingsman, Secret Service”). This aspect of the film was outstanding, as was the cinematography by Linus Sandgren (“La La Land,” “American Hustle,” “Joy”) and the choice of music (Anthony Willis). Sandgren worked on “Babylon” (another great party scene film) and Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap, which also promoted “Promising Young Woman,” backed this movie.
After the film’s screening at the Music Box Theater in Chicago, Emerald Fenner shared some insights into the making of “Saltburn,” including this: “If you’re making something so exotic, it is really about detail. It’s a billion-dollar house, but inside they’re watching ‘Superbad.’ Felix has the tattoo Carpe Diem. The room is lit by a karaoke machine.” When characters are shown reading a book, the book is “Harry Potter.” The references to Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII, as well as Oliver’s correction of the accurate author of a quotation, late in the movie, are far from incidental. The choice of the name Saltburn, itself, for the estate, can provoke more debate. It’s that kind of layered script with scrupulous attention to detail. Hence Ms. Fennell’s winning the Visionary Award from Chicago and also recently being named Filmmaker of the Year at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
When asked about three shocking scenes in the film (which may offend some) the writer/director said, “It was suggested that I cut away, but I wouldn’t and I won’t. It’s a funny, terrible scene. I won’t pull away.” While making this defiant statement, Fennell wore a red-and-white tee shirt from Giordino’s pizza, which proclaimed “I Got Stuffed in Chicago.” (Perfect!)
Look for this one to rack up nominations come Oscar season and to provoke discussions among movie audiences. For me, it was a terrific follow-up to “Promising Young Woman.”