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How Saltburn became the most chattered about film of the season despite a cool critical reception

Over in the puritanical United States, there has been much bloviating about how ‘unnecessary’ some scenes in Emerald Fennell’s film are

Emerald Fennell could reasonably, in late August, have left the Telluride Film Festival in a state of mild disappointment. It would be wrong to say Saltburn, her much-hyped follow-up to the Oscar-garlanded Promising Young Woman, landed with an audible splat, but that dreaded phrase – sometimes an unkind euphemism – “mixed reviews” did seem appropriate.

“A stylish but ultimately silly patchwork of borrowed ideas,” the Hollywood Reporter griped. “It slightly overstays its welcome and doesn’t maintain the total involvement it had achieved,” the veteran critic Todd McCarthy wrote in Deadline. There were certainly raves, but there was no hint of the breathless consensus that was simultaneously coming the way of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things at Venice.

*Warning - spoilers ahead*

Between then and now, something happened. Attitudes hardened. Some people love the thing. Others absolutely hate it. The film’s more outré moments (bathwater, graves, sanguinary pleasuring) have generated online memes. Attacks on Fennell’s privileged background have resumed. A part of Barry Keoghan’s intimate anatomy provided Jo Koy with an extended bit for his already notorious monologue at the Golden Globes.


“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Fennell has no worries on that score. “Is Saltburn stupid in a good way or a bad way?” Vulture wonders. “Is Saltburn the most divisive film of the year?” the Guardian counters. I don’t know. Maybe. Why is everyone yelling questions at me? Why aren’t they yelling questions about Poor Things?

-Let us examine the evidence. Even before Saltburn emerged, film wonks were noting apparent similarities with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, an apparently workingclass Scouser who, while studying at Oxford, falls in with an upper-class set headed by Jacob Elordi’s enormous, sleek Felix Catton. The posho lures the oik to Saltburn, an estate of Bridesheadian dimensions, and introduces him to his classically dysfunctional extended family.

Rosamund Pike is faultless as a blinkered matriarch who (with no apparent grasp of the implications) believes herself to be the inspiration for Pulp’s Common People. Alison Oliver, the Cork actor who broke through in Conversations with Friends, is tragically lost as an underappreciated sister. Richard E Grant does what he does as paterfamilias.

As the film progresses, and the protagonist’s malign impulses emerge, shades of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley fall across the yarn. Fennell admitted to more surprising influences – novels by Thomas Hardy and Alan Hollinghurst. “Brideshead is directly looking at novels like Jude the Obscure,” she told Tara Brady in this newspaper. “It’s a subsection that describes The Line of Beauty or the novels of Sarah Waters. It’s a specific British thing: something happened in a country house that none of us could ever forget.”

Much as we might like it otherwise, it was not the literary heritage that generated all that heat. When it became clear Fennell was acknowledging her influences, initial raised eyebrows were reluctantly lowered. But everything else mattered. To risk an overused meteorological analogy, Saltburn generated a perfect storm of online agitation.

It helps that Fennell, who played Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, comes from money. Daughter of Theo Fennell, a renowned jewellery designer, she attended Marlborough College – alma mater of John Betjeman, Catherine, Princess of Wales, and, as it happens, Chris de Burgh – before going on to study at Greyfriars, Oxford. Many punched up at her after the success of Promising Young Woman. Not only had she enjoyed a privileged background, but she hit a stream of extraordinary luck with that project.

Promising Young Woman arrived to decent enough reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2020. Released online nearly a year later, it profited greatly from the quieter cinematic climate in the wake of the pandemic. We will never know if Fennell would have won her best original screenplay Oscar in a year without an asterisk next to it.

In an industry where class is still the biggest barrier to advancement, it is understandable that commentators will push back against such good fortune. But women get it worse than men. You don’t see the same antagonism towards “nice old” Richard Curtis (Harrow School and Christ Church, Oxford) as you do towards the likes of Fennell. Anyway, as Saltburn itself illustrates, class still matters.

Fennell’s background fed into uncertainties about how convincingly she maintained her “eat the rich” satire. We have another question for you. “Can posh people write good class satire?” Patrick Sproull wondered in Dazed (or, rather, the headline above his more nuanced article wondered). I was among those who felt, after an impressively vicious opening hour, Saltburn gave into affection and pity for Oliver’s potential quarry. Pike, in particular, mutates from venomous dullard to tragic victim. None of this is helped by a thumpingly brainless flashback that makes schemes explicit that would better have been left implicit.

Never mind that. What about the filth? It is extraordinary how easy it still is, in the year of our Lord 2024, to get the populace overheated about the reproductive act and adjacent operations. Three incidents in particular have triggered much dropping of pince-nez in fragile cyberspace. Oliver drinks Felix’s bathwater after the upper-class snoot has enjoyed a relaxing moment of manual self-release. He offers Alison Oliver’s character oral pleasure at a certain time of the month. He later humps a grave. (You could add in Keoghan’s nude dance at the close, but that plays to a less heated school of provocation.)

Over in the puritanical United States, there has been much bloviating about how “unnecessary” such scenes are. “I love truly shocking material, but shock for the sake of shock is just gratuitous and boring,” a commentator on Deadline explained. Ah, yes. The old “the sexy bits just bore me” defence. That never gets old.

It’s not “necessary” to make a film at all. If those scenes are just there for the “sake of shock” then they have surely proved how useful shock can be. A certain social media site loves it. Rush to TikTok for a “Saltburn cocktail containing Jacob Elordi’s bath water”. (Don’t worry. It actually comprises lychee martini, gin and coconut milk.) The bathwater has also inspired a scented candle. Shock is an industry and Saltburn is happily employed.

None of this would register if the film had not, for all its narrative clunks, been carried off with such elan. Linus Sandgren’s oily cinematography makes the suggestions of high-end fashion photography a feature rather than a bug. The still images play beautifully on Instagram. And then there is Keoghan’s ambiguous, nagging, sinister performance. For all his brilliance here, the Dubliner is probably still an outsider for an Oscar nomination, but he wouldn’t have got so close without the surrounding Saltburn chatter.

And that babble will continue. It is self-perpetuating. Online discourse thrives on the perception that the mass of opinion is opposed to your own brave unorthodoxy. “Am I the only person who thought Saltburn sucked?” You’re really, really not. “Am I the only person who thought Saltburn ruled?” You’re really, really not.

And please stop yelling questions at me. I think I need some peace and a nice warm bath.

Saltburn is currently streaming on Prime Video

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