“Dead relly… dead relly… dead relly’s teddy,” drawls Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), pointing out the portraits of his ancestors hanging in his family’s country estate. The last of these catches the eye of his desperately common visiting friend Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) – and surely also any viewers for whom Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, with the flamboyant Sebastian Flyte and his beloved Aloysius tucked under his arm, was a formative read.
“All of Waugh’s charters are based on my family, actually,” Felix glidingly explains – which is writer-director Emerald Fennell acknowledging the debt with an outrageous stage wink. Fennell’s uproarious follow-up to her 2020 debut Promising Young Woman is a sort of Brideshead Regurgitated: a macabre class satire that’s so drunk on its own daring, it all but asks you to hold its hair out of its face while it kneels by the toilet.
For readers uncertain as to whether this qualifies as a recommendation, take it from someone who spent half of the film barking with laughter and the other half watching through his fingers: it is. Set in the mid-noughties, and with the glorious pop soundtrack to prove it, Saltburn is both a riveting cuckoo-in-the-nest psychological thriller and a laser-accurate send-up of the modern English gentry’s crumbly plight.
If the elegant Felix is this story’s Sebastian, then its Charles Ryder is Keoghan’s Oliver, a taciturn Northerner of murky origin whom we meet going up to Oxford as a member of that university’s class of 2006. The ease with which his significantly better-off peers move through life appalls but also beguiles him, and soon he finds himself obsessing over Felix, a dreamily attractive old-money type.
Partly out of charity, partly of genuine affection, Felix welcomes Oliver into his friendship group – and soon, the two are passing a sweltering summer at Saltburn, the Catton country seat. But while Felix smells a pet project, Oliver just smells opportunity. And as the latter inveigles himself, Ripley-style, into the whole clan’s intimacies, things get nasty – in both the traditional and sexed-up senses.
Saltburn is stowed with terrific performances, from Keoghan’s skin-pricklingly enigmatic lead turn to Elordi’s note-perfect guileless toff, to the chokingly funny-slash-sad supporting turns from Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant as Felix’s parents. It’s also needlingly perceptive on identity: particularly that inbuilt young-adult resistance to defining oneself by one’s roots. And the details of its ultra-specific milieu are musically precise, from Pike’s throwaway reference to her teenage daughter’s bulimia as “you know… fingers for pudding” to Grant’s perusal of the News of the World over Sunday breakfast.
The film’s secret ingredient, though, is its sheer, nude-bungee-jumping-level fearlessness. British cinema hasn’t been this badly behaved since the days of Nic Roeg and Ken Russell, and was frankly in need of the shake-up. Fennell has a sharp eye for outrage, and an even sharper one for hotness, crafting any number of scenarios and images here that may elicit sotto voce phwoars against your better judgement. In the final stretch, Saltburn overplays its hand: the (unavoidable) tying up of loose ends takes a while, and it’s a pity that so much juicy ambiguity is shooed away via flashback. But it rallies with a final sequence that left my jaw rattling round my knees: this is cinema as mischief, with a raw saline bite.
Cert 15, 131 min. In cinemas from Friday November 17