One of the oddest things about this summer’s very odd blockbuster season was that despite loads of massive movies coming out, nobody was allowed to speak about them. Just as Barbie’s pink wave of publicity crested in mid-July, the actors strike began – barring all union members from working on or promoting their films. That meant no glitzy parties, no TV appearances and definitely no interviews for three whole months. Thankfully, the strike’s over now – and just in time too, says Saltburn writer-director Emerald Fennell.
- Read more: Emerald Fennell is well aware of her own privilege: “Class is such a fixation in this country”
“It’s just so amazing that SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild) did such an incredible job and now everyone is back,” she said at the dark comedy drama’s world premiere this week, “‘cos I don’t need to talk about [Saltburn] by myself anymore!” Ironically, one of the film’s producers, Margot Robbie, who was also in attendance, couldn’t have lended her voice even if she’d wanted to – because she’d lost it. This is no bad thing, however, because Saltburn is best enjoyed when going in completely clueless.
It kicks off in 2006 at the start of Oxford University’s autumn term. Oliver (Barry Keoghan) is the nerdy, working class student from Merseyside with no friends. Felix (Jacob Elordi) is the opposite – handsome, popular and the heir to one of Britain’s richest, oldest families. After Oliver does Felix a good deed involving a flat tyre, he takes pity on the scholarship boy and makes an effort to include him in his posh boy partying. They become bessie mates, in a Prince And The Pauper kind of way, and Felix soon invites Oliver to spend the summer with his family at their mammoth rural estate called Saltburn. Sex, drugs and a soundtrack filled with mid-noughties indie bangers (MGMT, The Killers and more) fuel a sunny vacation packed with illicit fun.
It’s in this second part where all of the shocking bits happen. Fennell proved herself a master of the slow descent into chaos with debut Promising Young Woman, which won her an Oscar in 2021 for Best Original Screenplay. That film, which followed a traumatised young woman out for revenge, pulled the rug on its audience just as they felt properly secure. Fennell does this to similar effect in Saltburn, though it would be a spoiler to explain how.
It’s not a spoiler to say Saltburn is a far funnier film than its predecessor thanks to some laugh-out-loud supporting turns from Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike. They play Felix’s aristocrat parents – Sir James, who spends most of his time planning lavish booze-ups for his friends, all called Henry; and Elspeth, who once tried to be a lesbian but had to back out because the sex was “too wet”. That’s just one of many one-liners Pike knocks out of the country park. If we’re honest, she’s probably the best thing in Saltburn.
After meeting the fam, Oliver spends the rest of his stay trying to worm his way into their affections. Fennell’s rich tapestry gradually unravels from this point, and we lurch, bowtie askew, half-empty bottle of Dom Pérignon clutched in one hand, towards a gripping finale. Saltburn isn’t the most talked-about party of the year, but you shouldn’t miss it all the same.
- Director: Emerald Fennell
- Starring: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike
- Release date: November 17