Ian Thomas Malone



January 2024



Saltburn’s luscious scenery can’t save its empty narrative

Written by , Posted in Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Satire often functions best when those being lampooned carry with them a degree of humanity. It’s easy for fiction to craft strawmen to tear down. There are far greater ramifications for the audience when a certain level of discomfort sinks in when you realize that you feel some sympathy for the people you’re supposed to hate.

Emerald Fennell’s sophomore effort Saltburn fills its narrative space with nothing but unsympathetic characters. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a scholarship student struggling to find his place in elitist Oxford. He builds an easy rapport with classmate Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), an outgoing member of the ruling class with plenty of sympathy for Oliver’s fish-out-of-water status. Oliver fabricates much of his biography, earning an invitation to spend the summer at Saltburn, Felix’s family’s massive country estate.

Saltburn has all the makings of a delicious drama. Felix’s family, including mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), father Sir James (Richard E. Grant), sister Venetia (Alison Oliver), and cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) are a delight to watch as they skirt the line between inviting and off-putting, their welcoming nature perpetually contrasting with the impermeable barriers of the inherent inaccessibility of their class. An outsider might feel at home at Saltburn, while never forgetting that they’ll never truly belong.

The cinematography is absolutely delightful, with some of the best camera work in modern filmmaking. Anthony Willis, who scored Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman delivers a chilling score that works with the cinematography to support the singular aesthetic put forth by Saltburn as an estate. The playground that Fennell has constructed is wonderfully inviting, almost able to make you forget that there’s supposed to be a story here.

Unfortunately, Saltburn falls a bit short when it’s time to pivot from the sugar high of watching beautiful people behave horribly toward a narrative with any sense of takeaway. The acting is phenomenal across the board, but Keoghan’s work never really feels in service to anything beyond the constant shock value. Much as Fennell tries to put forth the idea of a subversive narrative, Saltburn never really tries to get beneath the surface of its shallow themes.

The film loses much of its steam by the time the third act rolls around. The 131-minute runtime is a bit too bloated for substance free diet that Fennell presents to her audience. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that there’s nobody to root for in Saltburn. Life is not necessarily a game of heroes and villains, especially when you’re dealing with the privileged Oxford class.

The core issue at hand with Saltburn is Fennell’s reluctance to leave her mark on the audience. The film puts forth a few scenes that are destined to remain in the public discourse for at least the next few years, undoubtedly bolstered by the rising star power of Keoghan and Elordi, but Fennell has nothing to say about wealth or status. In that regard, Fennell is no different from her shallow subjects.

Saltburn is pretty and plenty of its audience will delight in being able to say they were in on the joke whenever the film resurfaces on social media. A viral movie is not necessarily a good movie. When the shock wears off, there’s little left beyond the gorgeous scenery. It’s a shame to see such a first-rate production so ill-served by a script with nothing to say.