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Saltburn: Barry Keoghan is excellent as a Scouser among malign poshos at Oxford

Film never properly escapes its guilty passion for the surface attractions of the posh Saltburn life

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn
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Director: Emerald Fennell
Cert: 16
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Paul Rhys
Running Time: 2 hrs 11 mins

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has a limited amount to say about 21st-century society, but one lesson remains applicable to the current undergraduate experience: how often the student abandons early, makeweight friends for supposedly more glamorous figures straddling upper rungs of the ladder. Emerald Fennell’s conscious genuflection to that novel again casts an initially unfancied Oxford student among crumbling aristocracy. But the perspectives are different.

Barry Keoghan, excellent as either prole toy or agent provocateur, plays Oliver Quick, an apparently working-class kid from a dysfunctional Liverpool family. After a term moping with the Morlocks, he falls in with a prime Eloi – we’ll get to that HG Wells reference in a minute – from an archetypically blase English dynasty. Jacob Elordi, soon to play Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, could hardly be more statuesque as the chiselled Felix Catton. As in Brideshead, embarrassments cause posho to notice less-posho (much less here) and welcome him to the estate at high summer.

Fennell, already an Oscar winner for writing the broad but effective Promising Young Woman, is pretending to a less forgiving take on the ruling class than that in Brideshead. There the fragile Catholic family is half-pitied, half-admired as it fails to accommodate postwar utility. Here, Fennell has fun making monstrous, hateful idiots of the Catton clan. They ape concern for the less fortunate even as they fail to place Liverpool on the map. Richard E Grant, as Sir James, delivers his lines through the sort of rigid jaw only a public-school education can deliver. Rosamund Pike is better still as a (youngish) solipsistic matriarch who believes she was inspiration for Pulp’s song Common People. Alison Oliver, the Cork actor who broke through as the mousy student friend to the cool cavaliers in Conversations with Friends, switches sides with relish as Felix’s damaged sister.

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The first half of Saltburn – named for the Catton estate – is a sour delight that promises a violent reckoning. Only a fool would take Oliver, played with the bodily clench Keoghan has made his own, as any sort of acquiescent sap. There are suggestions of Terence Stamp, disrupter in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Marxist allegory Teorema. Remember that, in Wells’s War of the Worlds, the Morlocks were revealed to be dining on Eloi flesh.


We shan’t say how that works out. But the film never properly escapes its guilty passion for the surface attractions of the Saltburn life. Linus Sandgren’s camera makes inky ghosts of the characters as they slip before nocturnal backgrounds. One half-groans at the suggestion of an incoming party and, sure enough, the wearying event is at home to the off-the-peg decadence that, just last year, dragged down Damien Chazelle’s otherwise diverting Babylon. The film looks to be aiming for a creative confliction – we hate all this as we strive for it – but manages only to reveal a con at its centre. Saltburn is no less impressed by the patrician opulence than would be the average Benetton spread in Vogue.

An eventual settlement proves less Götterdämmerung than League of Gentlemen. The supposedly shocking excesses – Barry humping a grave and decorating himself in menstrual blood – plays like a cry for attention on the film-makers’ part. The longer it goes on (and it does go on), the more one senses a belief that grandstanding can overcome narrative uncertainty. An epilogue begins with one key character inexplicably changing personality into something markedly more benign. It ends with a showy moment that outstays an already strained welcome.

The frustration is that much works here. Fennell sets off in the right direction. A strong cast helps her on her way. But conviction falters long before the tables are kicked over.

Saltburn is in cinemas from Friday, November 17th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist