That final shot is going to go down as one of the best final scenes of the year.
Saltburn is the second feature film from Academy Award winning filmmaker Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), who made waves with her fantastic and shocking debut feature as a filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to push boundaries in service of great characters and an intriguing story. Saltburn may not contain the in-depth social commentary that Promising Young Woman had, but it absolutely keeps in true form with the shocks and surprises and is proving to be one of 2023s most divisive releases!
Oliver (Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin) is a timid outcast who has just begun college, and is struggling to make friends and fit in. That is until a chance encounter with renowned popular rich kid, Felix (Jacob Elordi, HBOs Euphoria) grows an unforeseen bond between the two, that Oliver initially thought would be unattainable due to their differing social statuses.
Their affinity for each other leads Felix to invite Oliver to his family’s mansion for the summer, a behemoth old English castle called Saltburn. The ridiculousness of high society and Felix’s eccentric family, including his blasé parents (played by Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant), is an initial culture shock to Oliver, but as he becomes assimilated to this life, darker secrets from within Saltburn begin to emerge.
Saltburn plays as a film in two distinct acts. The first being the blossoming friendship between Oliver and Felix, and the second adding more sinister and twisted elements. However, Fennell’s choice to present the film in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (as close to a square box as a film can be) creates an unnerving claustrophobia right from its opening moments, and that unease doesn’t let up until the final shot. Intense close ups of characters are a visual way for Fennell to grab your attention and force you to watch, even if there are points you will want to look away. Even the grand wide shots of the mansion or the college somehow feel off putting. The harsh use of lighting on incredibly distinct colours are used to create a shadowy darkness also enhances the nightmare-like feeling that Saltburn carries. This film is a visual feast from Fennell and creates more excitement to see how she develops this flair in future projects.
Where Fennell decides to linger the camera most is on the two lead stars, who are outstanding. Jacob Elordi oozes sex appeal on screen, there’s no denying it. But it’s his charming, devil-may-care nature that not only draws in the audience, but makes a great case as to why Oliver is so infatuated with him. Felix is seemingly a decent guy, despite his wealthy background and out-of-touch-with-the-common-folk family, and Elordi leans into that personality with a lot of nuance. His ability to effortlessly bring that charm to screen is another layer that he has added to his recent acting repertoire that is showing the world he is an actor worth watching.
This, however, is Barry Keoghan’s movie through and through. He is unquestionably one of the greatest young actors working today, with his performances in films like The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Banshees of Inisherin, there is an Oscar in his sites because every time Keoghan is on screen, you can feel his dedication to a role, and Saltburn is no exception. The art of timid acting can sometimes be over-the-top as certain actors incoherently mumble their way through the awkwardness of their characters, but Keoghan manages to make Oliver feel like an authentic outcast. There is an immense amount of sympathy that Keoghan’s performance draws just by understanding what it really feels like to be alone.
But its when Felix beings opening Oliver’s personality up through their friendship that Keoghan’s performance begins to progressively change, and there’s a chameleon type quality to Oliver’s ease of assimilation into this family. His voice changes, the way he carries himself changes, and it’s all the subtle things that Keoghan does as an actor that highlights how great of an actor he is.
The supporting cast is also fantastic, often providing most of the darkly comic relief throughout the film. Rosamund Pike completely own the oblivious wine-drinking mother who has a disdain for ugly people, who bounces off her eccentric and ignorant husband played so engagingly by Richard E. Grant. The biggest surprise of Saltburn is Archie Madekwe, who had his breakout role in this years Gran Turismo, as Farleigh, a distant cousin to Felix’s family and aggravator towards Oliver, who finds to be a threat to his own cosy existence at Saltburn.
Where Saltburn may lose people is how dark and twisted the second half truly gets. For those who don’t mind some unexpectedly fucked up moments, specifically in a disturbing sexual manner, where the story of this film goes will take you on a hell of a ride that is a darkly funny as it is confronting. It may not play as well for those who have been suckered in by a reasonably tame and compelling story of friendship for the first hour, who may feel blindsided despite the overarching sinister tone that is felt throughout the film. The deliberate addition of these moments from Fennell come incredibly full circle by the film’s shocking finale, so their purpose within the film is valid, it’s just absolutely wild!
Saltburn is delightfully twisted, dark, and funny. It’s a brilliant follow up feature for Emerald Fennell, who proves once again she is a master of shocking audience while creating an intriguing story, and who’s visual style as a director has gone from strength to strength. But this is Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi’s film, both of which chew up every scene they’re in with incredible on-screen charisma, chemistry and sex appeal. Saltburn is going divisive, sure, but it’s a bold and ambitious feat that deserves to be seen on the big screen, with a like-minded audience!
Saltburn is playing at this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival, with the festival running from October 26 to November 5. You can buy tickets and check festival info at www.biff.com.au . Saltburn released nationally in cinemas from November 16, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
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