thu 18/04/2024

Saltburn review - an uneven gothic romp | reviews, news & interviews

Saltburn review - an uneven gothic romp

Saltburn review - an uneven gothic romp

Tainted love among the toffs in Emerald Fennell’s latest

Over the top table: Barry Keoghan as the socially challenged Oliver in ‘Saltburn’

This seems to be a season for films majoring on bisexuality, with the awards round encompassing Ira Sachs’s Passages, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro and Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, a story of high-class high jinks in a modern twist on Evelyn’s Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Saltburn describes the bad education of an awkward young man, played by the electric Irish actor Barry Keoghan, at an English stately home, and follows in the path of those other two films in not giving bisexuality an especially good name. At least in Brideshead it was allowed a subtle nod and presented as a rite of passage, but here it’s a jumping off point for all manner of debauchery, up to and including a form of necrophilia.

Fennell won a writing Oscar in 2021 for her debut movie, Promising Young Woman, an alt-feminist don’t-try-this-at-home shocker about toying with male concupiscence. It combined entertainment value with a serious point in a very well-tuned way. This follow-up tries to keep the shock value high, and ladles on the comedy of extremes, but it all seems more for effect than illumination.

Keoghan plays Oliver, a lower-class freshman from Liverpool at the relentlessly upper-crust, extrovert’s paradise of Oxford University, who is taken under the wing of an uber-charismatic posho called Felix (the impressive Jacob Elordi) intent on rescuing him from social oblivion. After a well shot but none-too-believable first act at Oxford, Felix invites him to stay for an open-ended summer at his family’s palatial country pile in a set-up so borrowed from Waugh that Fennell acknowledges it in a claim from Felix that the novelist was “obsessed” with his aristocratic clan.

Waugh’s book is famous for its dry wit (as in the line that you spend half the second year at Oxford shaking off friends you made in the first), but here the humour is altogether, as it were, sploshier. Felix’s parents, played by Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant, are twittish to a near-Monty Python degree. Just the word “Liverpool” sends them into a tizzy as if Oliver has said “Woolloomooloo” and they puzzle out where the heck it might be. (Carey Mulligan offers a cameo as a mad-as-a-cake hanger-on in this sequence: she’s the funniest presence in the film.)

Before long, Oliver is inadvertently – and then quite advertently – harshing their mellow, as he gets more than a little close to Felix’s wasted sister (Alison Oliver) and another young house guest, an American played by Archie Madekwe. But the main focus of his increasingly twisted lust is Felix himself. The nature of this obsession is only sketchily drawn in dialogue but summed up visually in one of the movie’s more outré moments: Oliver licking up the dregs of Felix’s bathwater, right down into the plughole. By now, events are taking a somewhat Patricia Highsmith turn.

I called Keoghan “electric”, but this applies more to his acting skills than to the characters he plays, which tend towards brooding galoots, as here. With his puzzled looks and slightly behind-the-beat delivery – like the drumming of the late Charlie Watts – the pose that most suits him seems to be hunched forward with his hands between his knees. (His dragging, off-kilter intonations have a touch of the Adam Driver.) Amid the Debrett’s types at the Saltburn dinner table, he’s like a ball bearing in a curdling syllabub.

Saltburn is lavish to look at, as dark arterial reds take over the screen, but with a tone of gothic larking too much to the fore in Fennell’s script. At least it gives the lie to the idea that the upper classes always know how to play the long game. Not when Keoghan wheels up at the door. 

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