" exquisitely shot and wickedly amusing class comedy."

Classy Dark Dramady about Social Class

(120723) With all the high-profile big budget films that recently opened (like Napoleon and Priscilla) there is a large possibility that the excellent Saltburn will get lost in the shuffle due to its quirkiness and lack of star power, which would be a real shame. For Saltburn is an exquisitely shot and wickedly amusing class drama/black comedy. It is also one of the smarter films around right now.

Saltburn is about an odd pair of opposites that meet at Oxford. Felix is a handsome, and fun-loving rich kid who is smooth with the ladies while Oliver is a plain looking, serious, nervous and broke kid in an affluent school. The two young men meet up by chance (or at least so it appears) then after a family tragedy Oliver is allowed to stay at the other boy’s family’s expensive mansion called Saltburn. The relationship has homoerotic overtones and Oliver shows the depths of his obsession when he goes into the bathtub that Felix ejaculated into and consumes it.

The film was directed by Emerald Fennel, part of a new generation of excellent female filmmakers that graduated from acting to film making (others include Lily Rabe, Molly Gordon and Britanny Snow).  Fennell is a double threat, and she is known both for her fine TV acting and her superlative film direction. She starred in Call the Midwife (2012 to present) and got an Emmy for best actress for playing Camilla Bowles in The Crown (2016-present). Also, her debut film directing job, Promising Young Woman (2020) earned three Oscar nominations including best picture (it also made my Top Ten films of the year list.). I thought this film was just slightly less impressive.

Because of the way Saltburn deals with social class issues and class envy, it reminded me both of the classic Joseph Losey film, The Servant (1963), about a butler who controls his employer, and the more recent, An Education (2009) about the rich man capriciously using a poor girl for amusement. The whole concept of an ordinary person moving into a huge mansion with quirky, threatening characters is also slightly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s classic, Rebecca (1940). The film seems to be part of a wave of films, called eat the rich movies by film critics, which reverse traditional rich-poor power dynamics which also includes Snow Piercer (2013), Parasite (2019), and Triangle of Sadness (2022).

Although the film lacks star power, the cast is uniformly excellent. Carey Mulligan who has a small but key role here also starred in Fennel’s previous film, Promising Young Woman, and she will also be in the upcoming Bradley Cooper film Maestro. Rosemund Pike whose performance elevated Gone Girl and earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress is wonderful playing the haughty matriarch of a rich family. Barry Keoghan (from The The Banshees of Inisherin) is Oliver Quick, a person of meager means and a disreputable family who is deeply insecure about his humble upbringing while interacting with the elite at Oxford  The only reason he gets to go to his prestigious school is because his hard work led to scholarships while everyone else seems to be there because of their privileged backgrounds. Oliver meets the filthy rich Felix (Jacob Elordi) by chance and the two become fast friends.  Oliver narrates the story from some future point and the way he tells it we can ascertain that something bad happened to Feliz.

After a tragedy occurs, Oliver has nowhere to go, and Felix graciously agrees to let his friend stay with his family during the holiday break. It could be that Felix also feels sorry for Olivier because he knows that a close family member died and also that his mom is an alcoholic, and his mom is a drug addict. Oliver soon learns that Felix’s filthy rich family are so eccentric that they make the mighty Tenenbaums look like the Beavers. For instance, they overdress for many occasions and wear suits and ties to play Tennis,

Felix has a complex and troubled relationship with his parents who give him everything from a material standpoint and not as much from an emotional one. Rosamund Pike is Lady Elisbeth, the highly privileged mom of Felix who is just as pretentious as her name. Early on she hurts Oliver with careless chatter. She reveals her coldness and lack of humanity when after the death of her troubled friend, Pamela (Carey Mulligan) she declares, “She’d do anything for attention” implying she died to elevate her social status. But she also has a soft, compassionate side and eventually seems to care for Oliver as a sort of surrogate son. Her very polite husband, Sir James, who is even more aristocratic (well-played by Richard E. Grant) is gracious to his guest, but he seems to tire of Olivier before his wife.

Farleigh is Felix’s caustic American cousin, and he feels a certain rivalry with Oliver. He taunts him claiming that he is mere temporary entertainment for the family when he refers to him as a jack in the box and says, “You’re so real, I like you much better than last year’s one,” and he eventually tries to destroy Oliver with idle gossip.

Venetia (Alison Oliver) is quasi sympathetic and has a delicate beauty but from the beginning we know she will cause trouble. She’s Felix’s troubled and terminally bored sister who is constantly drunk and goes through wide mood swings. Also, she has body image problems; she seems to be bulimia and is constantly throwing up. She flirts with and seduces Oliver, but like the rest of her family she sees him as a temporary toy or plaything. In a few months she could easily switch to a new jack in the box.

The film has been criticized because the director Fennell was aristocratic herself (her dad was a rich jeweler and she attended Oxford) and some critics claimed she pulls her punches when she mocks the wealthy. But I believe that the reason the surprise ending works so well is that the rich people are not just total one-dimensional monsters, and they are sympathetic up to a point.

Eventually we see that not all the characters are what they seem to be and the payoff in the twist ending is marvelous. Although the film’s basic story is not particularly special or extraordinary, the splendid performances, artful direction and gorgeous cinematography elevate the film, and it is at least as good as some of this year’s Oscar contenders and it has a chance at some minor nominations.

Written & Directed by:    Emerald Fennell
Starring:    Barry Keoghan, Jacob Ellora, Rosamunde Pike
Released:    11/17/2023 (in US theatres)
Length:    131 minutes
Rating:    R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and
 language throughout, some disturbing violent
 content and drug use
Available On:    At press time playing in limited release at several
 Chicago area theatres

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to and His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

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Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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