Saltburn: black comedy thriller send-up of British elites and modern British culture

Emerald Fennell, “Saltburn” (2023)

Arriving in Sydney with little fanfare, “Saltburn” initially presents as a more contemporary variation of “Brideshead Revisited” with the latter’s hints of a homoerotic relationship finally out loud and proud in the open – but this satire of the British upper classes, and their customs, rituals, traditions and the psychological damage and other unfortunate consequences their lifestyles lead to, is enlivened by a plot that borrows liberally from Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr Ripley”. The plot may also say something about how modern Western culture, intersecting with British values, diminishes everybody regardless of social stature and enables individuals of a sociopathic bent to manipulate other people’s kindness and compassion, and ultimately to dispose of them in sadistic and brutal ways. Scouser undergraduate Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) arrives at Oxford University on a scholarship and almost immediately is scorned by the other students there because he wears cheap clothes and doesn’t come from the right background. After a hard time from the other students and feeling quite lonely and alienated, he comes under the wing of aristocrat student Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) who invites him to spend summer holidays with his family at Saltburn, the Catton family estate. On arrival there, Oliver meets Felix’s rather batty family: absent-minded father James (Richard E Grant), vague mum Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), nymphomaniac teen sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), American cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe), butler Duncan (Paul Rhys) and Lady Elspeth’s friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan).

From then on, despite long days lazing around the pool, getting drunk, watching trash television and dressing up for evening dinners, Oliver finds things are not quite what they seem and tension with Felix and other family members – especially with Farleigh who, like Oliver, is an outsider and rather suspicious of Oliver’s presence at Saltburn – steadily increases through various scenes of deliciously black comedy. Along the way the plot drops several hints that Oliver may not be all he claims to be, though these hints seem fairly innocent enough and we assume that he simply has the hots for Felix and possibly also for Venetia. Farleigh spies on him and tittle-tattles to other family members. Eventually a crisis develops with someone’s death at a fancy dress birthday party thrown for Oliver, and eventually the plot undergoes a horrific twist that casts everything that has happened up to this point in a completely new light.

For the plot to work as effectively as it does, Keoghan puts in a superb performance as Oliver who develops from uncertain and insecure young student to inquisitive house guest to (spoiler alert) confident and cunning liar / sociopath determined to get what he wants, to the extent of manipulating events as well as people. Elordi and Madekwe play their roles well as potential antagonists who nearly uncover Oliver’s scheming but end up being knocked out of the way. Praise should also go to the cinematography which turns the Saltburn estate with its labyrinth garden and equally labyrinthine interiors into a Gothic character in its own right. The music soundtrack, while loud and brash, features cunningly selected pop songs like the Pet Shops Boys’ “Rent” and Sophie Ellis Baxtor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” that comment on the plot and its action.

Although the Catton family members are presented as stereotypes – dotty, casually cruel parents and troubled offspring who find solace in drink, drugs and sex – the actors who play them do so convincingly enough that viewers can glimpse the dysfunctional nature of the British upper classes and the sterility of the culture that produces them and individuals like Oliver who take advantage of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the elites for their own selfish reasons. When the end credits arrive, we find though that we can’t quite summon up the anger and sorrow we think we ought to feel for the self-absorbed and feckless Cattons while we might secretly admire the demented and obsessive sociopath who reclaimed for the lower classes the wealth that had been stolen from them generations ago during Britain’s imperial age. What does this say though for the lower classes, that the only way to bring the elites down and spread Britain’s wealth fairly is to descend to the same levels of manipulation and murder that the political, economic and social elites of the past brought to their own people and to the peoples of their empire?