If there’s one thing that can be said about Emerald Fennell’s new psychological black-comedy thriller “Saltburn,” the follow-up to her Academy Award-winning 2020 film “Promising Young Woman,” it’s that it’s certainly bold.
Directed, written and produced by Fennell, “Saltburn” is as extravagant as the upper-class English lifestyle it depicts. With style and color that pop off the screen, it’s undoubtedly hard to look away from both the decadence and debauchery that occur. At times coming across like an advertisement for a fragrance or a fashion line, it’s full of imagery that could easily be plucked from the film and inserted into a magazine.
But while beautifully shot by director of photography Linus Sandgren in a classic 1:33.1 aspect ratio, and generally pretty entertaining at that, “Saltburn” falls short in its thin characterization and superficial class satire, leaving its flamboyant excesses feeling like overcompensation.
Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, who arrives at Oxford via the town of Prescot on a scholarship. Instantly smitten with popular rich kid Felix Catton (played by Jacob Elordi), the quiet, studied outcast, purporting to come from a troubled background (both of his parents addicts), manages to gain acceptance into his classmate’s circle after lending hand with a flat bike tire. While some of those surrounding Catton are more skeptical of “Ollie,” as he’s affectionately nicknamed, the ensuing friendship results in an invitation to spend the summer with his aristocratic family at their lavish estate Saltburn — and an obsession rooted in love, lust and status that spirals out of control.
Rounding out the core cast are Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant as Catton’s mother and father, Lady Elsbeth and Sir James, respectively (in standout, albeit relatively minor, roles); Alison Oliver as his sister Venetia; Archie Madekwe as his American cousin Farleigh Start; and, in a rather brief turn, Carey Mulligan as his mother’s friend, “poor dear” Pamela.
Set in 2006-07, the film works as a sort of modern period piece, trading the historical costume drama its castle setting may mentally evoke for scenes of karaoke to Flo Rida’s “Low” and movie parties featuring “Superbad” and “The Ring.” MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” and Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up to Dry” are featured prominently, too.
It certainly comes across like an updated, edgier take on “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” to which it has been frequently compared, though its underdeveloped characters and hit-or-miss humor hold it back. As with the other characters, Quick and Catton’s friendship at the heart of the film seems underwritten and resultantly ingenuine, making it difficult to buy into as the story moves from beat to beat. And while storyteller Fennell and star Keoghan are unafraid to go unexpectedly explicit places, they feel similarly forced, even ostentatious — like the emphasis is more so on shock value than anything else.
It can all be summed up in an early scene in which two of its main characters are going over an assignment with a tutor. Quick refers to critique of his writing’s style as opposed to its substance lazy, to which Start counters, “It’s not what you argue, it’s how.” With “Saltburn,” Fennell certainly has the “how” down — the film’s vibrant, flashy visual palette and audacious moments help it go down easy enough — but it still feels hollow, like it’s lacking the substantive “what” it needs to make it stick.
“Saltburn” opens in theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 22.