Directed by: Emerald Fennell
Written by: Emerald Fennell
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Achie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Payl Rhys
Released: November 16, 2023
Grade: A


Some filmmakers toil in the fields for decades before making it Hollywood but that hasn’t been the case for London-born Emerald Fennell.  The actor-turned-director won the Oscar for best original screenplay for her first feature film, Promising Young Woman, in early 2021.  While I wasn’t its biggest fan (was iffy on the script), you could see Fennell’s talent behind the camera.  She had created an intriguing character (Carey Mulligan in an Oscar nominated role) and loaded the movie with interesting, provocative ideas.

Saltburn is her sophomore outing and, knowing I’m in the minority for saying this, is a better film.  It’s a wild, colourful, surprising, head-spinning ride filled with hilarious, self-absorbed characters.  You’ll be studying them from the outset and trying to work out if they’re complete morons or cunning psychopaths.  None of them are particularly likeable (part of the film’s alure) so it bucks the trend of a traditional narrative with heroes and villains.

The quick-moving storyline revolves around Oliver (Keoghan), a first-year student at Oxford University who is ridiculously intelligent when it comes to academia… and ridiculously inept when it comes to meeting people.  He wants to be part of the “cool crowd” but they want nothing to do with him.  Rightly or wrongly, they perceive Oliver as an awkward nerd with poor dress sense and an empty wallet.

Oliver’s social status improves dramatically when he helps the super-popular, super-attractive, super-wealthy Felix (Elordi) out of an annoying situation (his bicycle broke while riding to class).  It’s not long before he’s regularly hanging out with Felix and his friends – from drinking in bars, to chatting in dorm rooms.  The pièce de resistance arrives when a sympathetic Felix invites a grieving Oliver (his father just died) to stay with him for the summer at the family’s enormous mansion, known as Saltburn.  The introductory tour provided by Felix is a funny highlight.

The crux of the film is spent at Saltburn where Oliver interacts with Felix’s mum (Pike), dad (Grant), sister (Oliver), cousin (Madekwe), and long-time butler (Rhys).  I won’t reveal too much but there are some outlandish moments (e.g. a draining bathtub) that will generate a reaction from even the most nonchalant audiences.  It’s power games aplenty as characters use their smarts and sexual appetites to try to get the upper hand over others.

One might argue there’s not much in the way of broader story… but that’s not what Saltburn is about.  It’s a film to be savoured for its memorable individual scenes and its off-the-wall conversations.  Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin) is terrific, Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is comically good, and Archie Madekwe (Gran Turismo) uses his stand-out voice to great effect.  It’s also a career best outing for Australian Jacob Elordi (Euphoria) who finally gets a juicy role to work with.

Featuring distinctive cinematography and inspired song choices, Saltburn rattles and entertains.