The Movie Waffler New to Prime Video - SALTBURN | The Movie Waffler

New to Prime Video - SALTBURN

New to Prime Video - SALTBURN
An Oxford student is invited to spend his summer at a classmate's sprawling estate.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Emerald Fennell

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

Saltburn poster

One of the unwritten rules of film criticism is that you should avoid criticising a film for not being the movie you wanted. But what if a film fools you into thinking it's exactly the movie you wished for, only to ultimately reveal itself as something far more disappointing? That's the quandary I find myself confronting as I attempt to assess my feelings regarding writer/director Emerald Fennell's Saltburn. For most of its running time it fooled me into believing it was a far more interesting film than it actually is, and I was largely enthralled throughout.

Saltburn review

For some baffling reason, the movie takes place in 2006. Usually when movies are set in the recent past it's to avoid the disruption modern technology might bring to a thriller plot, but the internet, social media and cellphones all existed in 2006. Anyway, it's here that we meet Oliver, the latest of actor Barry Keoghan's signature creeps. Oliver is a scouser on a scholarship to Oxford, where he struggles to fit in with the posh kids. That's until he has a meet cute with Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), the sort of popular boy The Kinks were singing about in 'David Watts' ("He is so gay and fancy free, he is of pure and noble breed."). Come to think of it, Oliver is a lot like the narrator of that song ("I am a dull and simple lad, cannot tell water from champagne, and I have never met the Queen."). Just as the narrator wishes he could be like David Watts, so too does Oliver envy Felix's life, though there's also a hint that he may be in love with the toff.

Taking pity on Oliver's somewhat dubious tales of working class woe, Felix invites him to spend the summer at Saltburn, his old money family's sprawling stately home. There Oliver meets the various goofballs that make up Felix's kin: his shallow ex-model mum Elsbeth (a hilarious Rosamund Pike); his dotty dad Sir James (an underused Richard E. Grant); his vulnerably horny sister Venetia (a striking turn from Irish actress Alison Oliver in her feature debut) and his gay, mixed-race cousin Farleigh (a delightfully villainous Archie Madekwe). There's also a hanger-on in the form of Pamela (Carey Mulligan), who is two triangle-cut sandwiches short of a picnic.

Saltburn review

When Saltburn was first announced most of us probably expected another satire of the decadent rich, the sort of movie that would have starred Delphine Seyrig in Pike's role if it had been made 50 years ago. The truth is the Cattons aren't very decadent at all. Aside from having to earn a living and being able to throw sumptuous parties on a whim, there's little to distinguish them from the average family. During the day they lounge around and read books. In the evenings they huddle together in the living room and watch bad comedies on the sort of shitty and outdated TV rich folks always seem to have (perhaps it's because those from old money stock move through life century by century rather than day by day that makes them so bad at keeping up with technology).

Saltburn instead takes its cues from movies like Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Servant and Teorema, in which a malignant force enters the lives of some wealthy hosts and consumes them like a vampire. We've seen Keoghan play this sort of role before in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and he's just as good here. Despite lacking the looks of a Dirk Bogarde or a Terence Stamp, he convinces as a seductive presence through how he nails Oliver's conniving and manipulative ways. But there's also the sense that he's out of his depth, that the Cattons are merely indulging his fantasy of corrupting them with the intention of taking over their world. In this sense Saltburn appears similar to David Fincher's The Killer, which features a hitman who talks a good game but is a lot more human and flawed than he'd like the audience to think. There's something particularly knowing about Oliver, played by Elordi in a manner that makes us wonder if he's really as gullible and naive as he seems. Casting one of the tallest male movie stars in Elordi opposite one of the shortest in Keoghan adds an extra layer, with Felix always towering over Oliver in a manner that suggests a social dominance that will require a particularly strong axe to fell. We're reminded that the aforementioned movies of Renoir, Losey and Pasolini are mere fantasies, that in reality the big house always wins.

Saltburn review

It's fascinating to watch all this play out, even if Fennell does occasionally indulge her immature provocateur tendencies in attempting to shock us with some business involving body fluids (at my screening I was seated next to a pair of ladies in their seventies and they didn't seem remotely perturbed by anything they witnessed; but they probably saw first run screenings of Pasolini movies in their youth, so why would any of this stir them?). In its attempts to shock in such a manner the movie comes off as prudish and sex negative, a reminder that it's from the woman who gave us the regressive Promising Young Woman.

The trouble is, everything that's interesting about Saltburn, i.e. the subversion of the Servant/Teorema trope, is in our heads rather than on screen, as the movie's final act reveals that rather than subverting this convention it's simply repeating it. There's a point in the movie, involving an encounter in a café, that would have made for a perfect ending, one that leaves room for ambiguity and sends the audience away with a debate to be had in the pub. Instead it's all wrapped up, but not even neatly, leaving no room for us to deconstruct what we've just seen. As reviewers desperate to find a diamond in every movie, we can often give mediocre filmmakers too much credit. Sometimes if it tastes like chicken it's simply because it is chicken.

 is on Prime Video now.

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