TFF 50 Review: ‘Saltburn’ Is a Diabolically Alluring Film

Ashley Menzel's Telluride Film Festival review for Saltburn, another provocative winner for Emerald Fennell.

Olivier (Barry Keoghan), an isolated student at Oxford, sets out to befriend the alluring Felix (Jacob Elordi), and through a series of events, Oliver and Felix’s friendship blossoms. From two entirely different realms of existence, this unlikely pair set off to Felix’s family estate, Saltburn, for the summer. What follows is a wickedly woven tale of manipulation, control, and pure insanity under the blazing summer sun.

Barry Keoghan fully embodies Oliver. Keoghan’s seductive and taunting performance has made him a sure bet for an Oscar nomination later this year. In each scene, he commands attention and curiosity from the audience. Much of the film is spent being fascinated with and terrified by him. With such masterful control over every emotion, facial expression, or movement, Keoghan sets himself apart as one of the best actors of a generation. The character is depraved and twisted in ways we cannot imagine as we see it unfold throughout the film.

In exact juxtaposition of that character, Felix is a carefree and spoiled man-child who uses people as playthings, unaware or undeterred by the impact that has on others. The absurdity of his character is exacerbated by the exuberant and egocentric bourgeois family played by Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Archie Madekwe, and Alison Oliver.

On the surface, the characters appear to be just another high-class family entirely out of touch with reality. However, teeming just under the surface is a more sinister group easily and artfully coaxed out, manipulated, and tamed by Oliver. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, matriarch and patriarch of this family, are the pinnacle of dysfunction and detachment from any real emotion. Their performances perfectly balance and mirror each other, illustrating the farcical nature of this family’s generosity in having Oliver as a guest for the summer.

Surrounded by a stunning set design, these performances shine even brighter. With a hauntingly beautiful aesthetic and cinematography, Emerald Fennell has made her voice known, reinforcing her position as a visionary filmmaker. The style is undeniable and creates an all-encompassing atmosphere. Any scene in the film could be frozen and printed to be hung in a gallery. Her use of light and shadow to create these otherworldly, ethereal scenes is nothing short of genius. We are transported to Saltburn, a formidable estate with a sense of unnerving quiet punctuated by this utterly hopeless and reality-detached family.

Saltburn is a diabolically alluring film that will undoubtedly divide audiences but has an undeniable style and voice that is entirely unique and totally captivating. Emerald Fennell commands this artistically bold and masterfully crafted film, securing her place as a visionary filmmaker and auteur.

Saltburn opens in select theaters on November 24, 2023.

Written by
Ashley Menzel is an avid film lover and lives in Los Angeles, CA. She loves foreign films and dramas and reading books that have film adaptations. Her favorite movie of all time is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. She loves Doctor Who, Supernatural, iZombie, and Grimm.

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