Emerald Fennell's sophomore film is boldly captivating
With Emerald Fennel bursting onto the directing scene with Promising Young Woman (2020), it was inevitable for an immense anticipation for her sophomore follow-up to build. We’ve thankfully not had to wait long to receive it, with Saltburn (2023).
Saltburn is the story of Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), a first-year at Oxford University in 2006, who details his poor and traumatized past and becomes obsessed with the wealthy aristocrat classmate Felix (Jacob Elordi). As the two grow close, Felix invites Oliver to his manor, Saltburn, for the summer, where the latter will have to navigate the world of the British aristocracy.
Fennell is a writer-director that is intrigued with subjects that make viewers uncomfortable. Such was the case with Promising Young Woman with rape. Saltburn turns its lens onto social class. Saltburn deepens Fennell’s control and grasp of her cinematic world, littering layers and winks of narrative references that make viewers want to rewatch to catch them all. Fennell also uses gorgeous and beautiful aesthetics clashing with the darker narrative to drive her point home. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren is a particular standout, helping inform the narrative as well as form a comprehensive visual palette.
Fennell, still being a working actress, shows particular adeptness at handling her actors. Keoghan has already showcased his talent in the likes of Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) (in a similar role to Saltburn) as well as The Banshees of Inisherin (2022). With Saltburn, Fennell squeezes the potential that Keoghan had been showing, to completion. The Irish actor delivers a fearless, unhinged, and conflicted performance that will have viewers flitting about trying to decide whether they’re rooting for him or not. His character arc is particularly impressive in how he ends up playing every beat of the dramatic spectrum.
The supporting cast is also impressive, with Fennell coaxing organic performances within bizarre sequences. Elordi turns on his full charm, in a curious contrast of his performance in Priscilla (2023). Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, as Felix’s parents, are comedically wonderful, but its Alison Oliver and Archie Madekwe, as Felix’s sister and best friend respectively, who rise to Keoghan’s heights. Oliver is domineering in her role and commands your attention even when off screen. Madekwe, seen earlier this year in Gran Turismo (2023) starts as a bully yet becomes an audience surrogate in a subtle tonal switch pulled off seamlessly.
Fennell’s exploration of class politics, wealth alienation, and optics are deft and effective at leading the narrative to its shocking, but inevitable finale. However, just as Saltburn delivers its satisfying conclusion, it keeps going. As such the finale becomes an elongated redundancy which dithers on diluted satire instead of the dark comedy from the rest of the film. This softens the impact of the Saltburn’s dramatic outcome and thus, makes the final third drag as viewers grow weary of the same point being made.
Nevertheless, Saltburn is a triumph as Fennell’s sophomore effort. She boldly tackles a difficult topic with an unabashed style and flair that, while proving too forward for some viewers, will be immensley rewarding for others. The astounding performance from Keoghan, along with an unforgettable visual aesthetic, cover the repetitive final act's flaws, and help make Saltburn one of the more memorable watches of the year.