Writer and director Emerald Fennell, who won Oscars in 2020 for her feminist revenge thriller Promising Young Woman, is also an accomplished actress. It is worth mentioning because Fennell’s portrayal of Camilla in The Crown, memorably telling a naughty joke about hunting while Prince Charles splutters with laughter, shows her familiarity with the taste and habits of the British upper class.
In Saltburn, Fennell brings aristocratic foibles into focus through the goings on of the Catton family, whose scion, Felix Catton (Australian Jacob Elordi from Euphoria), takes a sort of fascinated pity on a poor friend from Oxford, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan).
In a plot with distinct parallels to The Talented Mr Ripley, Felix invites Oliver to the family manor for summer. Felix gives Oliver a cook’s tour through Saltburn, past the “ugly Rubens” and family portraiture, and tells him with a hint of apology that he is expected to wear black tie for dinner.
The scenes of family life that follow are so mordantly funny the film is a blessing for them alone. The mother, Lady Elsbeth Catton (Rosamund Pike), is immediately, excessively and insincerely welcoming in the “think of this as your home, you must stay forever” manner of aristocrats who don’t mean a word of it.
Elsbeth also confesses she cannot abide the ugly – and why should she, when she and everything around her is not? She also, as we see later on, cannot abide reality. When a house guest who overstays her welcome is booted out and comes to a bad end, Elsbeth notes only that Pamela (Carey Mulligan) always was one for attention.
Into this carnival of lost souls wanders Oliver, a quick learner who soaks it in while harbouring some off-putting lust for his toweringly tall and handsome friend, although Felix barely notices. When you’re that good looking, everyone is gobsmacked.
In Promising Young Woman, Fennell served up calculated violence that was seriously unhinged but contained a moral truth. Here, there is no yardstick. Oliver, the cuckoo in the nest, turns his attentions from one to the other, male and female, and finds a common language with Elsbeth, who latches onto him when things turn nasty. After one particularly awful night that began as a lavish costume party with winged angels and satyrs and ends in a death, she and Oliver discuss over breakfast the quality of the birthday cake. Was it all right, really, she asks, because chocolate can be so cloying.
The family head, Sir James Catton (Richard E Grant), snaps out of his torpor too late to prevent a cascading trail of disasters that sends the film spiralling into debauched madness. The final coda, which goes on painfully long, has a soap-opera silliness unworthy of the punk sophistication that preceded it.
The casting is spot-on, except for the key role played by Keoghan, who came to notice in The Banshees of Inisherin. He does what is asked but lacks the charisma needed to explain how he penetrated so deep into the family circle. The final scenes, and the film’s drifting purpose – what was the real prize? – make it an immature work but still signal Fennell as a particularly fearless and exciting filmmaker.
Saltburn is in cinemas now.