Saltburn (2023) – Film review by Andrea Carnevali

Saltburn  ⭐⭐⭐

A student at Oxford University finds himself drawn into the world of a charming and aristocratic classmate, who invites him to his eccentric family’s sprawling estate for a summer never to be forgotten. On in cinemas now.

After leaving this film I found myself a bit baffled, not quite sure how I should really take it.

I kept on asking myself “Why?”. I won’t go into spoiler, but the whole thing didn’t quite click or made sense for me.

So I waited a couple of days, trying to see if, with time, I’d be able to digest it a bit more and see the good in it and whether anything had stuck.

Sadly the answer is ‘very little’.

On one hand, the story of Oliver (An ultra-creepy Barry Keoghan), the young closeted man infatuated by the good looking schoolmate Felix (the charismatic Jacob Elordi) and eventually drawn into his rich life in the opulent mansion, (the Saltburn of the title) would seem the perfect excuse to critique class dynamics and the secrets and deceptions behind the facade of wealth.

But on the other, the film constantly shifts between melodrama, intrigue, and social commentary, to over the top and cheap satire, devoid of any subtlety and cleverness, diminishing the overall impact and eventually making the whole thing feel a bit crass and a pretty pointless exercise.

But of course subtlety is never on the menu for writer/producer/director Emerald Fennel. This is after all the follow-up to her Promising Young Woman, a film which seemed to assumed that every single man on the planet only wishes to get into every woman’s pants and if given the chance he would take advantage of her, without a second thought (I really found that film insulting and the more I think about it, the more I get angry about it… but what do I know? It actually ended up winning an Oscar for its script).

Watching Saltburn I couldn’t help noticing how many similarities there are with The Talented Mr. Ripley, (That’s a film I really love): both delve into the complexities of privilege, deceit, and the allure of rich lifestyles. In both films, the portrayal of opulent settings masks the dark undercurrents concealed within, leading to a web of deception and moral ambiguity.

Both films explore the themes of identity and the yearning for acceptance within exclusive social circles. The Oliver of Saltburn and Tom Ripley yearn for a life that seems beyond their reach and eventually find themselves immersed in a world where appearances are everything, blurring the lines between real and facade.

So far so good, however while The Talented Mr. Ripley was a gradual journey that successfully immersed the audience into a beautiful world with characters that were not only believable but also fascinating, allowing us to comprehend Ripley’s infatuation, Saltburn takes an over-the-top and rather unbelievable approach, (look no further than the depiction of the posh family).

This exaggerated portrayal veers into a parody of itself, rather than depicting something aspirational, creating a confusion not just in the message but in the overall intentions of Oliver.

Having said that, despite some of the shortcomings of the film itself, the cast really gives its all:

Barry Keoghan as the mysterious Oliver carries a lot of the weight of the narrative admirably. A brave performance, unafraid to go to some really dark places (and to dance completely naked in front of the camera).

Jacob Elordi, soon to be seen as Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla plays the charismatic Felix bringing depth and authenticity to the character. Both his on-screen presence and emotional range make him one of the few believable characters in the film.

The same cannot be said of Rosamund Pike who plays Felix’s mother with a hint of something which reminded me of her role in I Care A Lot. She may steal the spotlight with her compelling presence in every scene she’s in, but her character is so unbelievable and over the top that she seems to belong to a different type of film altogether. The same can be said about Richard E. Grant. No fault of their own, but just the parts they’ve been asked to play.

In the end Saltburn emerges as neither a resounding triumph nor a catastrophic failure. It is certainly slick, moody, stylish. It is filmed in a 1.33.1 boxed ratio to give more of an intimate and claustrophobic feel. The constant play with the reflections, while not subtle is also quite effective.

Overall, it’s intriguing enough to keep the audience glued and for most of it manages to weave together a tale of privilege, secrecy, and the allure of wealth, as well as the darkness around all of that quite successfully.

Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be able to resist the temptation to go for the shock value and to go over the top depictions of high class society. A little bit more subtlety, restrain and focus would have made this a much better film.

Saltburn is out in cinemas now.

Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick, and a co-creator of the Chiswick In Film festival.

See all Andrea’s film reviews here: Film reviews by Andrea Carnevali

Chiswick In Film festival: Chiswick In Film festival 2023

See all the latest stories: Chiswick Calendar News & Features

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