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Saltburn ★★★

Availability: Showing in theaters nationally; an Amazon/MGM co-production, it eventually will stream on Amazon’s Prime Video. See JustWatch here for future streaming information.


When Oliver Met Felix


The protagonist in British director and writer Emerald Fennell’s star-studded psychological drama/mystery is named Oliver Quick—and not by accident. Oliver bears some resemblance to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. By his own telling, “Saltburn’s” Oliver, like Dickens’ original, is a victim of a dysfunctional family, an impoverished childhood, and Britain’s noxious system of caste and class. While Oliver T. finds himself in the grasp of the villainous Fagin, our Oliver opens the film as a smart, eager, needy and nerdy first-term “scholarship student” at Oxford, only to be rejected and humiliated, time and again, by his elite classmates, who have nothing but disdain for his origins, not to mention his clothes. Oliver is an outsider.


Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), right,

points out to Oliver (Barry Keoghan)

that the long sleeves on his tux show everyone that it's merely a rental.



Clever and calculating Oliver (Barry Keoghan, Oscar-nominated for 2022’s “The Banshees of Inisherin”) finds a way to ingratiate himself with wealthy, charismatic, pretty boy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who’s so taken with his classmate that he brings him home for summer vacation. “Home” hardly describes Saltburn, the sprawling country estate where Felix lives with his parents and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver). Residing there as well are hangers-on Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), a literally poor cousin, and “Poor Dear Pamela” (Carey Mulligan). Mom Elspeth and Dad Sir James (Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant) are over-the-top brittle, class-conscious Brits, absurdly and comically (judging from the plentiful laughs in the nearly full theater) steeped in the social customs and “carry on” behaviors of another era—Dickens’ 19th century, one presumes, and a reminder of our own Gilded Age.

 

Energizing the narrative are important issues of need and desire, intersecting with class and sexuality.

 

It’s all a little extreme—a set of caricatures—and a side-show at that. Energizing the narrative are important issues of need and desire, intersecting with class and sexuality. For the Cattons, Oliver is not much more than this summer’s entertainment (“this year’s version,” says Venetia)—an object to be at once tolerated and enjoyed, his awkward ways essential to their condescending air and sense of magnanimity, of noblesse oblige. If Oliver were middle class, they wouldn’t be interested; they wouldn’t “need” him.

 

Felix is the master who needs the "servant."

 

Felix (Jacob Elordi) seems the playful innocent.










Similarly, Felix, as Oliver understands, is shallow and manipulative and, to add to Oliver’s irritation, lacking in self-awareness; he instinctively demands “performance”—that is, he requires that Oliver, like Farleigh and the co-eds in his entourage, perform for him, their abject loyalty and subservience testifying to his dominance. Felix is the “master” who needs the “servant.”


The latest in a long line of unreliable narrators, Oliver—played by Keoghan with a brooding, understated intensity worthy of Brando—is at the center of the film. While he’s willing and able to perform for Felix, he has desires of his own. For reasons not fully explained and that lend the film an enigmatic quality, Oliver needs Felix in a love/hate sort of way: for his beauty (contrasting with his own plainness); his dominance (the servant needs the master); his arrogant self-confidence; his wealth and status (the outsider needs the insider)—and his body. Oliver is sexually driven, even obsessed. There’s not-too-suppressed homoeroticism and very kinky stuff—what’s that he is licking off the bathtub drain? And as a performer and manipulator, Oliver is every bit Felix’s match. Unlike Felix, Oliver is self-aware.


Oliver is "played by Barry Keoghan

with a brooding, understated

intensity worthy of Brando."


It's a volatile mix, with consequences that will entertain some and disgust others (or both), with surprises, including a big one, along the way. Fennell’s 2020 “Promising Young Woman” won more than 100 awards, including an Oscar for best original screenplay. Her penchant for vengeance, in that case a feminist version starring Mulligan, carries over to “Saltburn.” The motivation is less clear in Fennell’s latest. So much so that, in the end, just about everyone will come away wondering when it all began, and why. Arthur Conan Doyle meets Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite”—with “Risky Business” making a late appearance? The cinematography is excellent, though some of the close-ups border on the obscene. A tub of popcorn and a dose of dominance/submission.

The Saltburn estate is as over-the-top as the brittle, class-conscious Brits who occupy it.


 

Date: 2023

Director: Emerald Fennell

Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Alison Oliver, Carey Mulligan, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant

Countries: United Kingdom and United States

Language: English

Runtime: 127 minutes

Other Awards: 2 wins and 1 other nomination

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