The haves and have-nots of Great Britain have always served as ripe subject matter for writers of every stripe and the tradition continues in Saltburn, a vibrant if rather familiar take on the class system circa 2006. Emerald Fennell, following up on her Oscar-winning script for Promising Young Woman, reveals a strong hand behind the camera, even if the trajectory of the story feels rather overwrought and familiar. Nonetheless, the writing is alive and often amusing, giving the fine cast a lot to play with.
At the center of things is Oliver Quick, a name of which Dickens certainly would have approved. Very engagingly played by Barry Keoghan, who broke through last year in The Banshees of Inisherin, Oliver is a teenager without parents whose looks are both odd and appealing and who is determined to break through the class and expectations barrier to make something of himself. He’s obviously one shrewd and sharp kid who, with no social advantages whatsoever, manages to get into Oxford.
Fennell spends a good deal of time laying out Oliver’s lively and sometimes brash character and crams her sets and locations with an unusual amount of boisterous characters; one could easily imagine the director taking on a Dickens novel and cram her film with as many colorful characters as possible. She paints with a bold confidence and enthusiasm that takes notice of everything that’s happening onscreen while managing not to crowd Oliver out for too long.
What Oliver doesn’t know is what he might do during the approaching summer. But he’s noticed by rich boy Felix Catton (the notably handsome Jacob Elordi) and in short order is invited to stay at his family’s stupendously large country mansion for the summer. What poor boy refuse such an offer?
So far, so good. Oliver is received with open arms by Felix’s father, Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant), and with somewhat less enthusiasm by his mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike). The film rather abruptly changes tone here; you get the feeling that Elsepeth has seen countless such guests come and go over the years and so hardly makes a fuss. Then there’s the odd choice to have Grant wildly over-act, something this wonderful actor has never done. The film then moves into more questionable areas, hitting a register that seems meant to be comic eccentric but, in the event, upsets the tone the film has maintained up to this point.
This change of performance style significantly alters the film’s personality and it’s as if the other actors seem to have followed suit by osmosis, moving into a register that was meant to be amusingly odd but comes off as somewhat phony, in another key entirely.
The film’s big set-piece is a nocturnal midsummer-night’s-dream party of staggering magnitude, which is part of the point but which also somewhat alters the fine balance the first half has carried off. It’s not that the film loses its way, exactly, but it doesn’t engage and fully carry Oliver with him. Rather than gain further momentum toward the end, it slightly overstays its welcome and doesn’t maintain the total involvement it previously achieved.
In the leading role, Keoghan shows a fine range, from unconnected kid lacking sufficient care to resourceful brainiac who, with a bit of luck, could go very far in life. Aside from the wrong turn conception of Grant’s character, the performances are finely judged.
What’s notable here is an undeniable, perhaps even insatiable desire to pack everything she can think of into the film, to propel the urgency, determinism and undeniable life force that is evident throughout. If Fennell can maintain this level of enthusiasm and creative smarts, avoid the temptation to go Hollywood, take the lucre and direct the latest Marvel concoction, she looks to be off on an excellent trajectory.
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Director-screenwriter: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, and Carey Mulligan
Running time: 2 hr 7 min
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