“I don’t think I’ll ever go home again.”
If you notice that The Talented Mr. Ripley has been brought up more than usual in film conversations lately it’s because the people mentioning that film have seen Saltburn, writer/director Emerald Fennell’s sophomoric effort to 2020’s Promising Young Woman. The film has taken audiences by storm who have gotten lost in a tale of privilege, youth, class, and their dark sides. Because so much of film criticism today seems to consist of saying one movie is basically a reworked version of something that came before it, the Ripley/Saltburn comparisons are both plentiful and already past their sell-by date. Watching Saltburn, I found myself thinking not of Ripley, but of the works of Evelyn Waugh, specifically “Vile Bodies.” That novel told the story of the “bright young things” of the 1920s and the decadence that defined them. The novel is mentioned in the film at one point (suggesting Fennell used it as inspiration) and this seems fitting since Saltburn feels like it could have been created by Waugh with its off-center, gothic glam take on upper British culture and those desperately yearning to be a part of it.
In Saltburn, Barry Keoghan plays Oliver, an Oxford student whose working-class background makes him self-conscious around his fellow classmates, especially the wealthy and handsome Felix (Jacob Elordi). Eventually, Oliver finds himself befriending Felix, who invites him to his family’s large country estate for the summer. Upon arrival, Oliver meets Felix’s mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father James (Richard E. Grant), and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). Also staying over for the summer are family friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan) and Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Oliver’s rival. As the summer progresses, Oliver becomes enamored with Felix and his family and soon finds it very difficult to leave Saltburn.
If there’s a single aspect that is bound to captivate audiences almost immediately, it’s the world of Saltburn, which Fennell and her team have brought to such glorious life. From the moment Oliver enters the estate, we are taken into a realm that’s right out of Luis Buñuel where our main character finds he can’t leave and eventually decides he doesn’t really want to. Time stands still in the world of Saltburn, which is interesting given that it’s already a period piece. The sprawling home is where the aristocratic and eccentric are forever interlocked. It’s where decadence and hedonism are the norm to such an extreme that at certain points the world itself leaps off the screen and threatens to pull the audience in with it. Saltburn is a surreal experience, although not in the most obvious of ways. It’s a world that traps all who enter with the intoxicating promise that within these walls lies a sort of slanted Shangri-La complete with the promise that the outside world will never find you. Saltburn allows you to get lost and spiral a bit into madness in a landscape that seeks to emulate the lifestyle of Marie Antoinette by way of a mid-2000s faded glamor. The dizzying effect of the environment proves so consuming for Oliver (or for anyone who never thought they’d get a peek into that kind of world) that eventually, the sprawling estate makes us lose our minds.
As much as the plot factors into the mechanics of Saltburn, it’s the characters that give the film its mesmerizing qualities. Saltburn as a place offers up a host of figures, any of which can be a hero, a villain, a victim, or a liar. The estate, with all of its lush and somewhat otherworldly trappings, has the ability to make the real world all but vanish, turning those who enter it into what Elton John once described as “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” Everyone in Saltburn remains a mystery to themselves and each other and each person becomes more intriguing in their own way as a result. The dynamics that exist between Oliver, Felix, Elspeth, and the rest of the group are just as challenging and unusual as any of them are, eventually evolving into the kind of mind games that will result in everyone’s unraveling. The absence of the outside world has left them so frozen in time that they now only exist as parodies of themselves; parodies driven by delusion and obsession and the world they’ve let swallow them up. And yet, for all their faults, everyone at Saltburn is so utterly authentic. Save for some diabolical hidden motives here and there, the people we meet in Saltburn are exactly who they present themselves to be. In the end, however, these are people who are either unable to or are refusing to acknowledge the tragedy that their lives are in Saltburn.
Fennell is not only successful at creating a host of fascinatingly tragic characters but she’s also got a knack for choosing the right people to bring them to life. Keoghan makes for the most compelling of leads, despite appearing to have the movie’s least flashiest role. Elordi succeeds at playing Felix like the most genuine out of everyone in Saltburn, giving a restrained performance that grounds the film during the times when everyone else is flying high. Grant is hysterical and pathetic, Mulligan is a delirious hoot, Oliver is tragic, and Madekwe plays his character’s agenda perfectly. It’s Pike who will surprise the most, as the somewhat manic mistress of Saltburn. Watching Pike play her character with little filter and almost no clue about the world she’s in or the life she’s living is a true marvel.
At the risk of repeating myself (which does happen on occasion), I can’t help but go back to the Waugh reference when it comes to summing up Saltburn. This is because despite being a thoroughly cinematic experience, Fennell has loaded her film with the sensibilities of many famous novelists, giving her work a real literary feel. Shades of Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and even Bret Easton Ellis exist throughout Saltburn in one form or another, reinforcing the fact that Fennell is a filmmaker of both imagination and keen observation. After the screening, I mentioned the Ellis influence to a friend of mine, who agreed and suggested that Fennell would be the ideal choice to adapt one of his novels, perhaps the long-gestating “Lunar Park.” This might sound like a stretch to some, but I for one am hard-pressed to find another filmmaker who captures the dark secretive moments that most believe are unique to them and holds their gaze the way Fennell does here. With Saltburn, she’s managed to find depth within the surface, embraced the veneer of superficiality, and allows us to revel in both the glamour and the darkness.