British actress Emerald Fennell made her big screen directorial debut with 2020’s highly acclaimed “Promising Young Woman,” in which Carey Mulligan turned in the best performance of her career as a young woman hellbent on seeking vengeance against any man who would dare to take advantage of her. This was the film in which she’d go to a nightclub, pretend to be too drunk to drive herself home, then turn the tables on the guy who drove her home – if that man then attempted to have sex with her in the supposedly drunken state.
This hatred of men stemmed from a traumatic incident which had occurred some years prior. As “Promising Young Woman” progressed, we were uncertain just how far she’d go to exact revenge against the male population. That was the “fun” of playing along with a very dark and bitingly satirical motion picture. Fennell’s original screenplay won that year’s Oscar, and “Promising Young Woman” appeared on many critics’ Top Ten lists, including mine.
Now three years later, Fennell tries to avoid the proverbial “sophomore slump” with her latest offering, “Saltburn.” For those who have no desire to read further, my opinion is that she somewhat avoids the sophomore slump, although “Saltburn” is not in the same league as her first feature.
This one takes place at Oxford University, and follows the freshman-year travails of young Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) – a shy student simply trying to fit in. Rejected by some of the wealthy students because he’s there on a scholarship, Oliver sets his sights on rich and popular Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi, coming off his portrayal of Elvis Presley in the recent “Priscilla.” The two Elordi characters could not be more different (save for the fact that they both chain smoke), and if you didn’t know, you’d have a hard time discerning that the same actor plays both roles.
By happenstance, the two meet when Felix’s bicycle develops a flat tire on his way to take an important exam. Oliver offers his bike, and the two become fast friends. When Felix learns of the unexpected death of Oliver’s father, he invites Oliver to spend the summer with him and his family at the Catton family mansion, Saltburn – an estate so massive it appears to rival Buckingham Palace.
It’s never clear exactly how the Catton family made their fortune, but Felix’s dad is Sir James Catton, so he’s obviously been knighted by the queen. Felix’s parents require attendance at all three daily meals, with the evening meal being a formal affair – suits and ties for the men, dresses for the women. In addition to Felix’s parents (Richard Grant and Rosamund Pike), he lives with his sister Vanecia (Irish actress Alison Oliver, who turns in the film’s best performance) and butler Duncan (Paul Rhys). This particular summer’s additional lodgers include Felix’s American cousin and fellow Oxford student Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) and his mom’s friend Pamela (Carey Mulligan, wasted in a very small role).
Other than the strict dining requirements, Felix’s parents are about as “hands off” as can be imagined. They throw wild parties in which their children and their friends drink, smoke, and fornicate into the wee hours of the night – but breakfast attendance is still a requirement for the following morning. A little of this partying and fornicating goes a long way, and it is during the middle section of “Saltburn” that we feel Fennell laying a “sophomore egg.” The film doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, and (much as in some David Lynch pictures) “weirdness for weirdness’ sake” isn’t a recipe for strong cinema. Why do these characters (Oliver included) act the way they do? “Rich and bored” doesn’t answer the question. We’ve seen other films about the filthy rich in which the characters act in a more conventional manner.
But just as “Saltburn” seems to be meandering toward some kind of ridiculous conclusion, Fennell’s original screenplay spends the last half hour tying up loose ends. Here, she allows us to see the depths to which Oliver will go to join the ranks of the filthy rich. To say he is motivated by money is an understatement. It is this final act that saves “Saltburn.”
But here’s my problem with the way Fennell has structured the screenplay. In “Promising Young Woman,” we saw the Carey Mulligan character grow increasingly out of control as the film progressed. Every encounter with another man proved evermore cynical and cringeworthy than the previous. The thrill was predicting just how far she would go. In “Saltburn,” we don’t have any idea how far Oliver will go until the very end. It is only at the film’s conclusion that we realize he’s potentially stark-raving mad; in “Promsing Young Woman,” we learned that incrementally. The result is that “Saltburn” lacks the punch of Fennell’s first effort.
In 2017, director Matt Spicer churned out “Ingrid Goes West,” a dark comedy starring Aubrey Plaza as a girl so intrigued with fame that she sets up a heroic dog rescue plot to meet a prominent social media influencer. As the film progresses, Ingrid becomes increasingly unhinged in her quest for fame. “Saltburn” could have operated on that level. Here, Oliver’s quest is wealth, not fame. But the similar set-ups beg the comparison. “Ingrid Goes West” was a great film. “Promising Young Woman” was a great film. “Saltburn” is not horrible – just simply somewhere in the middle. I venture to say I will not remember “Saltburn” nearly as vividly as I recall the other two.