here is self-awareness, and then there is the high-drama, über-kitsch, grotesquely overprivileged cinematic universe of Emerald Fennell. The Oscar-winning screenwriter and director of Promising Young Woman takes “write what you know” and runs with it, sets it on fire and dances in the ashes with the ridiculous Saltburn, opening this year’s BFI London Film Festival.
The DNA of The Talented Mr Ripley courses through Fennell’s second feature, leaving the righteous girls of her corrosive debut behind for a story about boys and their toys: the rich, desperate, horny and horribly destructive ones. Barry Keoghan – nominated for an Oscar for The Banshees of Inisherin and recently seen in Top Boy – leads the fable as Oliver Quick, a working-class Oxford fresher who notices the impossibly handsome and equally as rich Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi, decidedly 2023’s big screen golden boy) and realises he has to have him. To know him, to be with him. His life depends on it.
What ensues is a heady midsummer’s nightmare at Felix’s family home in the eponymous estate: a gargantuan manor where secrets line the many, many walls and every beautiful thing hides horrible truths and even more lies. It would be easy to dismiss it as an all-too familiar affair for Fennell, who graduated Oxford in 2007 and rarely shies away from her affluent upbringing – but Saltburn is so delicious in its twists, the gorgeously lensed disasters and endless farces, that it’s impossible to ignore the work of a truly gifted and haywire filmmaker.
She’s blessed with a gung-ho cast dedicated to her increasingly ludicrous script. Keoghan, one of the most beguiling and mercurial actors working today, has the mystifying range to seesaw from vulnerable and docile wunderkind to something much more sinister without flinching. Elordi and Conversations with Friends breakout star Alison Oliver play posh siblings with aloof seduction. Archie Madekwe and Carey Mulligan find great humour in sad and poisonous ways – and this could just be the funniest performance Rosamund Pike has ever given – alongside Richard E Grant, who’s known Fennell since she was 13, having the time of his life.
There’s an embarrassment of riches in the film’s aesthetic, from the satisfying mid-Noughties needle drops ranging from Girls Aloud to Bloc Party and MGMT, to the visual language owing a debt to Call Me By Your Name as much as Euphoria. It’s in service of the dizzying adventure of a story, undoubtedly wrestling with class and deception as much as desire and the plain silliness of youth. It’s all there, but one of the greatest pleasures of Saltburn is just being invited to the party.
Saltburn is the Opening Night film of the 67th BFI London Film Festival on 4 October 2023