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“Saltburn” is a rambunctious drama, for better or for worse

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Despite the initial shock factor of Emerald Fennell’s new thriller comedy “Saltburn,” the beautiful cinematography fails to obscure the lack of depth to the story.

It has become quite clear that Emerald Fennell has a passion for the fiercely provocative. Judging by her past work on the second season of “Killing Eve” and her 2020 film debut, “Promising Young Woman,” Fennell’s latest entry for the 2023 film season was bound to turn more heads, particularly if those heads belong to the chronically online crowds fawning over the latest heartthrobs of the year.

And it is safe to say that said latest entry, “Saltburn,” certainly appeals to the crowds who thrive on shock factors, aesthetics and cast member celebrity. However, the same can’t be said for those who crave a bit more substance from the insanity that is the film’s screenplay.

Set in the mid-2000s, “Saltburn” is a morbid yet comedic thriller centered around a first-year University of Oxford scholarship student named Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan). His perceived lower-class roots and Merseyside accent makes him stick out like a sore thumb and cause him to be thoroughly avoided by his peers. Despite such alienation, he finds himself drawn to Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who is the spitting image of perfection in Oliver’s eyes.

This distant admiration quickly turns into a close friendship, and Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer at his family’s manor in the British countryside, a grand estate that does not hesitate to showcase its affluence in excess. Montages of sun-kissed 20-year olds living in the lap of luxury ensue, while further behind the scenes, Oliver’s fascination with Felix, his wealth and his gratingly eccentric family and friends sets off a grim sequence of events.

So what exactly is there to like about “Saltburn”? At first glance, the film is inexplicably gorgeous, largely due to its cinematography and setting. Whether on the Oxford campus, the local pub or even the eponymous estate where the film takes place, every inch of scenery is vibrant with color and majestic from the ground to the air, thanks to the work of cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Fennell also credits Sandgren for the decision to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, of which she said, “It gives you the impression of peeping in, and that’s kind of what this is. It’s a doll’s house and we’re all kind of peeping in, scrabbling to get in.”

A handful of individual performances are also worth mentioning: the vanity-obsessed Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike) who irritates as much as she entertains with droll dialogue; Carey Mulligan’s cameo as a pitiful houseguest and the distraught and damaged Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver) who eyes Oliver’s closeness to Felix with caution.

Sadly, performances and cinematography are no good if they can’t be held together by a well-handled story, and likewise a concrete theme or commentary. In fact, this is perhaps the biggest problem with “Saltburn”—there isn’t much left to the imagination to set it apart from the other films and stories it seeks to evoke, such as “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The perceived class-disparity narrative that seems to play out in the first act becomes muddled by Oliver and his, to put it mildly, unhealthy fixation with a boy and his family. The film takes this obsession to the point where Oliver violently turns on all of Saltburn’s residents, making the self-absorbed wealthy family seem more worthy of sympathy, while Oliver becomes the undeserving and evil cretin that his posh classmates always made him out to be. It’s a predictable final twist that diminishes the script’s potential.

Why was such a strange choice made, then? Could it have to do with Fennell’s own background aligning with that of the Cattons because of her Eton-educated jeweler father and her own Oxford education? Is she choosing to not provide commentary on the nuance of the class divide because she herself belongs to that world? That is up to the viewers to decide for themselves. What is definitive for many, however, is the story’s heavy reliance on outlandish sequences, such as the ones involving a bathtub and a grave, to carry the story to a lukewarm ending, leaving very little to the imagination compared to the stories that inspired it.

The longer “Saltburn” sits in your mind after digesting the story, the more you wonder if it was worth your time. It becomes less clear whether the story has a clear motive or really anything to show for itself, and more clear that its shock factor and good looks exist not just for your entertainment, but also to be the next addition to someone’s vision board.

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