With just two self-penned films under her belt, British actor-writer-director Emerald Fennell is proving she’s a force to be reckoned with. The 38-year-old won the original screenplay Oscar – and was nominated for best picture and director – for her shocking and exhilarating feature debut Promising Young Woman.
In that #MeToo revenge thriller, Carey Mulligan “educated” young men who took sexual advantage of drunk women. It was a helluva calling card for Fennell – but if you complained its messaging was less than subtle, your eyes will be out on stalks with her sophomore effort.
Saltburn is an intoxicating black comedy that blatantly evokes Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr Ripley in its evisceration of the upper classes and those aspiring to join the club.
Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver, a scholarship student at Oxford in the mid-2000s, who falls in with the posh crowd and ingratiates himself into the family of the handsome, charming Felix (the handsome, charming Jacob Elordi from Euphoria). Invited to spend the summer at their estate, Saltburn, Ollie is welcomed by Felix’s innocently snobby mother Lady Elsbeth Catton (a hilarious Rosamund Pike channelling Joanna Lumley) and delightfully eccentric dad Sir James, played by Richard E Grant.
Lazy days turn into increasingly crazy weeks as Ollie is buffeted by jibes and humiliations, while everyone’s facade gradually peels away to reveal the grotesquerie of human entitlement.
Fennell is also from a privileged background. She started acting when she was at Oxford and her roles have included playing Camilla Parker Bowles in two seasons of The Crown. Her talent for writing richly comic, on-the-nose dialogue shows that she’s willing to skewer the hand that fed her.
Pike steals every scene with her wide-eyed incredulity (“I’ve had an absolute horror of ugly things ever since I was a small child,” she simpers at their new guest) and Mulligan has a wonderful cameo as family friend “poor dear Pamela”. Elordi is convincing as the Dickie Greenleaf character with whom everyone falls in love. Keoghan has shown great range since breaking out in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Dunkirk before his Oscar-nominated role in The Banshees of Inisherin. He steers this nasty tale as the outsider who doesn’t know how to be himself.
With at least two squirm-inducing moments you’ve never seen on screen, and a third act that goes utterly bonkers, Saltburn is tense, titillating and terrifyingly funny. The film may wear its influences unapologetically and lack decorum, but, by golly, you’ll be glad you accepted its invitation.
Saltburn directed by Emerald Fennell is in cinemas now and on Prime Video from Friday, December 22.