'Saltburn' — Emerald Fennell's promising young psychos

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday November 21, 2023
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Jemima Kirke, Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in 'Saltburn' (photo: Chiabella James/Prime Video)
Jemima Kirke, Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in 'Saltburn' (photo: Chiabella James/Prime Video)

There's little doubt that actress, screenwriter and filmmaker Emerald Fennell established herself as an unstoppable force after her 2020 full-length feature debut masterpiece "Promising Young Woman," especially after she took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 93rd Academy Awards. So, what did Fennell do for an encore?

First, she played Midge in Greta Gerwig's acclaimed box office smash "Barbie." Then she released her second full-length feature, "Saltburn" (Amazon/MGM). In some ways, "Saltburn" feels like the troubled kid brother of "Promising Young Woman" (It even features Carey Mulligan in a supporting role), especially in the way it delivers gut-punching twists and turns.

Oliver (Barry Keoghan) is an incoming class of 2006 scholarship student at Oxford. As he walks across campus, it's obvious that he is out of place. But he is an eagle-eyed observer, and he zeroes in on popular and hot student Felix (the stunning Jacob Elordi).

Ingratiating himself to Felix, Oliver gains entry into his social circle, which includes his queer cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), who is wary of Oliver. But Farleigh has his own concerns to keep him occupied.

Oliver, whose family mythology involves parents who are substance abusers and abusive towards him, earns himself an invitation to Felix's family's palatial estate (the titular "Saltburn") for the summer. Upon his arrival, after being greeted by severe butler Duncan (Paul Rhys), Oliver, who can't stop saying "wow," is given a tour of the house by Felix.

Barry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe in 'Saltburn' (photo: Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios)  

Oliver is introduced to Felix's family — mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father James (Richard E. Grant), and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) — as well as fellow down-on-her-luck houseguest Pamela (Mulligan).

This summer will be one that no one forgets. Queerness blankets the house like a homemade quilt. Oliver's obsessive attraction to Felix (the bathwater scene!), his garden interaction with Venetia (the menstrual blood scene!), his flirtation with Elspeth, and his late-night visit to Farleigh's bed, are completely over-the-top. But that's nothing compared to Felix's birthday surprise for Oliver, which includes a visit to Oliver's parents' home and subsequent family reunion.

Having exposed Oliver for the master manipulator that he is, Felix has no idea that he has set off a series of events that will result in a tragic body count that will go on for years. To say more would surprise Fennell's talent for shock and surprise.

Fennell deserves praise for the way she continues to incorporate queer characters and storylines into her work. Where "Saltburn" goes slightly awry is that some scenes, such as the one at the rainy cemetery and Oliver's naked dance (goes on ad nauseam, but well-worth seeing) feel endless.

Every time you think the movie has reached its conclusion, there's still more to see, which works against it in the long run. Rating: B

'Saltburn' opens at SF's AMC Kabuki 8 (1881 Post St.) and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (2550 Mission St.) Nov. 21; also streaming on Amazon Prime.

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