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Saltburn: a twisted, hilarious gothic thriller

'The soundtrack is full of early noughties bangers that wouldn’t be out of place in La Rocca nightclub, with tracks by The Killers, Flo Rida, and Sophie Ellis-Bexter.'

By Teddy Stoddart, Engineering Design, Third Year

It is the winter of 2006, and Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is struggling at Oxford University. Not academically – his personal tutor gawps at the fact he has read all 200 books on the reading list – but between his earnest overdressing, slight figure, and the fact he is from (gasp) the North, he is rendered a social outcast. He seems destined to spectate while his aristocrat peers party and screw, frittering away their inheritances while he can barely afford a pint.

However, his fortunes change when the 'poshos’ ringleader, the charismatic and devilishly handsome Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), decides to take Oliver under his wing. Oliver is permitted to join the in-crowd and, after disclosing his crushing family problems, is invited to spend the summer at Felix’s gothic ancestral estate: Saltburn.

This story might sound sweet and Dickensian, but in the hands of director Emerald Fennell, that isn’t to be. She uses a vivid colour palette and an aesthetic 4:3 aspect ratio that serves to draw the audience into a surreal summer at the Saltburn house. After arriving, it is not long before the eclectic mix of aristocrats and misfits that inhabit the estate start to misbehave, and the summer devolves into a carnal circus of obsession and suspicion with Oliver at its centre.

Keoghan is as captivating as Oliver, projecting an uncertain meekness while also being unsettlingly shrewd. Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike, as Lord and Lady of Saltburn Manor, also give standout performances. They provide comic relief in every scene they are in, effectively turning the film into a comedy. Recent releases like Glass Onion (2022) and The White Lotus (2021-present) could easily have made poking fun at the wealthy a well-worn subject, but Pike and Grant’s contemptuous portrayals of the idle rich never failed to draw a laugh from the cinema audience at Watershed. 

And this was a film worth watching with an audience. Whenever there was a line of witty dialogue, a scene of shocking violence, or a wince-inducing act, it was felt by the entire room. The soundtrack is full of early noughties bangers that wouldn’t be out of place in La Rocca nightclub, with tracks by The Killers, Flo Rida, and Sophie Ellis-Bexter. The visuals, soundtrack, and experience all come together to make Saltburn an incredibly fun film to watch communally. You’ll be kicking yourself down the line if you end up watching it on a smudged iPhone during a long car journey rather than on the silver screen. 

The film does have some shortcomings, however. It takes inspiration perhaps to the point of unoriginality from The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and the novel The Secret History by Donna Tart. The ending also feels quite rushed. But none of that really matters, as artistic originality doesn’t feel like something the film ever strives for. Saltburn is an escapist spectacle that takes you to places you wouldn’t normally dare venture to. It entertains and horrifies, and leaves you with a feeling of collective experience that you’ll be desperate to talk about. That’s surely all you could ask of a film and more.

Featured Image: IMDb

Is artistic originality necessary for a great film?