‘Saltburn’ review: Dull rich people behaving badly
Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick in 'Saltburn'

When it comes to entertainment and culture, corporate media and many multi-million-dollar studios try to make the general public envy the rich and the famous. We’re fed gossip stories about their marriages, divorces, feuds, affairs, scandals, and the latest mansion buys. We’re treated to movies that often glorify this lifestyle and the pursuit of it. We are fed the lie that the wealthy elite inherently have a more dynamic existence because they are rich and that their exploits are some sort of fantasy to behold and perhaps resent. Saltburn is the latest film that indulges in this theme. At first, the movie seems like it wants to tell you an intriguing story about wealth, jealousy, sex, and misfortune. Yet, the result is an unconvincing protagonist floating in a sea of dull, rich people misbehaving.

Written, directed, and co-produced by Emerald Fennell, Saltburn takes place in 2006 (for no compelling reason) and focuses on a young man named Oliver Quick, seemingly a scholarship student attending Oxford University. He is surrounded by many students who come from wealthy families and look down on him. Oliver soon sees the popular, rich, and handsome Felix, whom he befriends and becomes obsessed with. Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer with him and his eccentric family at their vast and lustrous estate called Saltburn. From there, shenanigans ensue as Oliver is thrust into the world of the super-rich and detached, with perhaps his own ulterior motives at play.

Now, I describe Felix’s family as eccentric because that is what the trailers for this film and much of the marketing would have you, the would-be viewer, believe you’re in store for a wild ride with wealthy people the likes of which you’ve never experienced. But most likely, you have experienced them before. Rich people who seem detached from day-to-day struggles, live in posh surroundings, and have melodrama and “zany” takes on the world are often used and clichéd tropes in plenty of stories. Sometimes, the rich people are fictional. Other times, they’re based on monarchies forced down our throats in popular culture. Unfortunately, Saltburn doesn’t add anything new to this archetype and feels like much of the same. Not even the wonderfully talented Rosamund Pike, as Lady Elspeth Catton, Felix’s mother, can save this aspect of the film. However, she gives a nuanced and compelling performance while attempting to do so.

This failure wouldn’t be as glaring if our main protagonist, the seemingly working-class Oliver, were worthy enough to shoulder much of the focus and drive of the story. The character is not. Instead, he feels like an enigma, floating around the Catton family, changing his personality depending on the situation. His motives become more evident as the movie progresses, but there isn’t much of a mystery, given how they play the character’s hand throughout. It’s not so much that Oliver needs to be likable, but the audience should feel a compelling connection to at least one character’s journey in a film—especially the ones who take up most of the screen time.

Somewhere in Saltburn, there are attempts to have messaging regarding wealth and depravity. The idea is that although the Catton family is wealthy, they are not to be admired, as they have their troubles and may be victims of manipulation or at least a series of unfortunate events. There is this push to say that everyone, regardless of background, can be capable of dark things and that envy is dangerous. But who is this message for, exactly? Do working-class people need to be taught the humanity of the wealthy? Is that worth two hours and twenty-one minutes of cinema?

Outlandish sexual scenes are scattered throughout the film. These wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they had a point besides distracting the audience from the hollow storytelling. Maybe some of these scenes are meant to show the darker sides of the characters, but equivalating unconventional sex kinks to moral depravity feels like a slippery slope. Many viewers will walk away after the credits roll with the sex scenes being most prominent on their minds. That isn’t because these scenes are genuine standouts, but because they are perhaps the most exciting happenings in the film.

There are some highlights to consider when watching Saltburn, though. There are moments when the dark humor lands nicely. Most of these moments involve Rosamund Pike. She stands out in this film, with Felix’s sister, Venetia Catton, played by Alison Oliver, being a close second. Venetia is a tragic and raw character who could make an interesting main character in a different world and a better script.

The cinematography in Saltburn is gorgeous, and scenes around the estate give off an ethereal “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” haunting aesthetic. Yet, when it comes to pieces of land taking on a character of their own, as the film attempts to create, we’ve seen it done better in other movies, such as Spencer—another film about wealthy people living in their detached world.

Overall, Saltburn is a film that attempts to say something profound but fails. If you take it at face value, it passes as a campy melodrama focused on rich people. Yet, other films are more worthy of viewers’ time and money if that is the case.

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.