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REVIEW: The spellbinding allure of ‘Saltburn’ 

Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi deliver captivating performances, unraveling a cinematic feast for the senses.

Film is, first and foremost, a visual medium. For this alone, writer and director Emerald Fennell’s second full-length feature ‘Saltburn’ is a delectable banquet for the eyes. It’s luscious cinematography and production design fill each frame with something gorgeous to look at: if not the extravagant excess of the British mansion Saltburn, for which the film takes its name, than the beautiful faces and bodies of its characters, most notably that of its lead stars Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi. Fennell pushes for a lot of earth tones and through the lens of cinematographer Linus Sandgren, manages to turn the skin tone of all the actors into exquisite textures. Every freckle, every strand of body hair, every drop of sweat that trickle down on any of the performer’s skin becomes a tantalizing, arousing spectacle that highlights this tale of obsession and of excess.

I wonder what ‘Saltburn’ would look like in the cinema – the luscious cinematography and production design projected in a giant cinema screen – rather than my little iPad screen as I stream the film on Amazon Prime Video. The delicious excess and indulgences that Fennell delivers in her 131-minute psychological drama feels like it is bursting out of the tiny screen of my iPad. There’s a bigness in the world that Fennell creates in ‘Saltburn’ that feels claustrophobic when seen in such a small screen. The effect in the big screen must be so different.

Courtesv of MGM and Amazon Studios | Copyright: © Amazon Content Services LLC

While there’s a masterful use of visual language, the story that inhabits this visual treat is a bit harder to swallow. It’s a tale of obsession, for sure, as Barry Keoghan’s Oliver finds himself alone in Oxford in 2006. Feeling like an outcast, he manages to befriend Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton, a popular boy in school. He’s handsome and rich and everyone flocks around him. The less privileged Oliver feels invisible but by Felix’s side, a bond is formed.

It’s so strong that Felix invites him to his British mansion Saltburn for the summer. And it is here that the mind games begin. Felix’s sister, Virginia, is outed as a sexual misfit and Oliver catches her walking just under his window of his room late at night in a see-through lingerie. Felix’s cousin, Farleigh never stops putting Oliver in his place, reminding him constantly that he does not belong in that world. Felix’s parents attempt at being cool and progressive but are unable to hide their elitist prejudices and fragile fears.

Courtesy of MGM and Amazon Studios | Copyright: © Amazon Content Services LLC

All of this proves to be too tempting for Oliver, who begins to entrench himself into the Catton household and the schemes and plans start to unfold. 

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As a social commentary, ‘Saltburn’ seems to have a lot to say about the British class divide, but there’s a fantastical, almost fanfiction like approach to how Fennell depicts British aristocracy. There’s no grounding element here – what is present is an idea of upper-class excess and indulgences. The Catton parents – played by Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant – are the type of people who’ll throw a 200-guest party for their son’s friend, whom they only met that week. They live in a castle that replaces a broken mirror the very next day that it is destroyed. Each character living in that house is broken and are either in denial that they are ruined to the core or completely oblivious to it.

This is the sort of innocence that makes the upper class in ‘Saltburn’ so despicable and somehow allows you to keep your eyes glued to the screen as Oliver twists and turns this family inside and out. The family is unaware of their effect on the world around them and even with all their good intentions, they seem unaware of the damage that they do and Fennell understands our need to sympathise with these people, because in truth, Fennell posits that, like Oliver, we want their level of excess. It makes us curious. It arouses us. We hate them. We hate this world, but we are also very much fascinated by it.

It’s what makes ‘Saltburn’ not an easy film to digest. It’s a visual treat but it’s also overwritten but it connects with all our basic desires – whether it is wealth, power, or beauty – which is represented by the Cattons. It’s why sex becomes a focal point of the film, it’s primal and without reason. It’s infused in the film’s visual language, and in the way the camera is obsessed with the physicality’s of its characters. So, while the story and even lines of dialogue is meant to shock you – sometimes even in ways that are so obviously scripted or staged and not at all organic – it is still something you cannot take your eyes off of. 

Unfortunately, there is a big narrative twist at the end, one that is clunkily handled. The reveal is on-the-nose, and its lack of cleverness finishes the film on a sour note (though saved by its visually stunning final image). ‘Saltburn’ is bold and daring and brave; a true scintillating visual treat that serves as a mirror of our ugliest desires in relation to beauty and wealth and power. It’s not an easy film to watch but it is spellbinding in its allure.

My Rating:




Saltburn  is now streaming on Prime Video, watch it here!


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Movie Info

Saltburn
Comedy, Drama, Thriller

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