Home Gay Editorials The insincerity of ‘Saltburn’

The insincerity of ‘Saltburn’

How can this film be so flavorless?

by John Stevens
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) looks out to the wide sprawling green of Saltburn's grounds over the balistrade. He is wearing a magenta dressing gown. The grounds are covered in detritus from a party the night before.

I had a hard time initially attempting to write this review of Saltburn. Now available on Amazon Prime Video, Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman, Killing Eve: Season Two) directed and wrote this black comedy/thriller that has a lot of parts that could make a good film.  What should be an engaging and disturbing romp of the Cuckoo-like Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) spending a summer with the object of his obsession Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) comes off as insincere and dull. Spoilers ahead for those looking to save ticket price.

The Catton Family and the Saltburn Estate

On arrival at Oxford University, Oliver develops an intense obsession with the upper-class Felix which soon blossoms into a friendship after a chance meeting. When Oliver receives sad news of the death of his father, Felix invites Oliver to his family’s country estate, Saltburn. Meeting the eccentric Cattons, Oliver slowly ingratiates himself into the family, despite the misgivings of Felix’s catty American cousin Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe). It turns out that the misgivings have justification, and Oliver’s not all he appears. Paralleling The Talented Mr. Ripley, Oliver is now embedded like a tick in the Catton family,  and when they throw him a birthday party, they have unwittingly planned their own destruction.

Even after Saltburn delivers its final revelation—that Oliver had orchestrated his meeting with Felix to take over the Saltburn estate—I was baffled by the thought: ‘Why?’ Why would this sociopathic person start the long pursuit of a property he has no attachment to from the beginning? It would make sense if his motives changed over the story, but the motivations of the characters, even if we don’t understand their background, are crucial. Saltburn’s writing is more eager to shock you than tell a story, and relies on the characters to explain what is happening rather than simply show it.

Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike) a tall willowy woman with straggly blonde hair is holding a champange saucer filled with a blue cocktail. She is wearing a pale lilac dress shod with silver.

‘But it was all just too wet in the end…’ Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) admits her brief dalliance with lesbianism. (Amazon MGM Studios)

Line Delivery Vehicles over Character Development

The most memorable lines are completely superfluous to the story. Lady Elspeth Catton (Rosamund Pike) is designed almost exclusively to deliver these statements.  Lady Elspeth’s admission of flirting with lesbianism, ‘but it was all just too wet in the end. Men are so lovely and dry,’ is a fun line. On its own, it is fabulous, and hints at greater meaning, but in the whole its meaningless. I feel like a quote from Daria best sums up this: “sometimes your shallowness is so thorough, it’s almost like depth”.

Barry Keoghan does most of his acting with his expressions. Oliver is akin to a black hole in that it crushes everything into itself and nothing can escape. He is both pitiable but detestable per the plot, but nothing in the writing makes you feel this, its all Barry Keoghan. 

RELATED LINK: Let’s Talk about that Sex Scene from Red, White & Royal Blue

There’s an awful lot of people in Saltburn

Richard E. Grant puts on one of his best wealthy distracted gentry as patriarch Sir James Catton. He’s all eccentricity and complete disinterest. But Carey Mulligan was the most oversold of all these performances. My friend who I watched this with believed her character was supposed to indicate the fraudulent generosity of the Cattons and how they adore saving people from tragedy, but then get bored and abandon them. And yes, to some extent “Poor Dear” Pamela accomplishes this. But she is a cartoon Evelyn Waugh character in a wig: she dies off screen so unceremoniously you forget about her before the film ends.

Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver) looks into the eyes of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) her eyes red with tears. Her blonde hair is wet and the eyeliner is starting to blur.

‘You’re a moth…’ Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver) bitterly mourns her brother. (Amazon MGM Studios)

Farleigh is always a delight as he is openly cruel to Oliver and his eventual downfall is tragic. Only external dialogue lets us know about Farleigh’s slipping grip on the Cattons’ generosity and familial spirit. Paul Rhys as the snobbish butler Duncan is taking his cues from Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers. It is a high camp performance delivered with a stone face. And yet, his performance is eclipsing the writing that you can’t help but feel betrayed with less of his screen time.

Alison Oliver gives the best performance of the entire film, one hour forty-seven minutes into the film. Her barely whispered venom spurting into ironic laughter while in a bathtub would have been the biggest scene in the film, if it wasn’t so eager on shocking you with Oliver fucking a grave or sucking Felix’s cum out of his bathtub drain.

RELATED LINK: Let’s Talk About That Sex Scene in Red, White & Royal Blue

All Vision, No Spirit

The only person meeting the writing at its level is Jacob Elordi. This is not disrespecting him as an actor, but he seems to be the one who gets the mundane nature of his character best. Felix Catton is wealthy and pretty…but he’s truly unremarkable. Elordi plays him exactly as how he’s written, a piece of teenage fan fiction. He’s a red herring of a McGuffin.

The grand house of Saltburn wants so desperately to be Manderly of Rebecca, but has none of the emotional draw. It is unsettlingly synthetic, which, although I think was intended to support its story’s message of deception and the unreality of the idle rich, doesn’t quite gel by its exaggerated ambitions.

Oliver Quick a caucasian male is standing side on, inside a bathtub with a wooden rim. His head is lowered to view the draining semen-laced bathwater (not pictured).

Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) examining Felix Catton’s (Jacob Elordi) semen in the draining bathwater. (Amazon MGM Studios)

Saltburn displays itself with gaudy pride, but the film won’t let you sit with a more human emotional response. Lady Elspeth is persevering through tears with mundanity, in a desperate attempt to distract herself from her son’s death. What we get instead is the curtain’s shadows staining the room red and Venetia overflowing her wine glass. It wants to show you that it is “arty” without the effort or intention the great art has.

No matter what I say about my displeasure, Saltburn has bled into popular consciousness. And at least people are talking about this film: There is something about it that is clearly connecting with people. I just happen to not be one of those people. To me Saltburn lacks spine, consistency, and sincerity. It feels like a film version of a meme. They quickly disseminate, interest fades, and soon it will be a poor memory. It is supposed to be a story about ‘want’, but I was left wanting.

SOURCE: Amazon MGM Studios, Amazon Prime Video, IMDb, MTV, Penguin Books

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1 comment

Gaius March 12, 2024 - 5:28 PM

Indeed, I was left with the same overarching question of “why?”


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