Writing by Fleur O'Reilly, artwork by James Wake.
Anyone who’s seen Emerald Fennel’s new film, Saltburn, will agree that it left a strong image ingrained in your mind and is frankly quite disturbing. Fennel’s take on Brideshead Revisited is a perverted and twisted vision, bringing the story to a more modern setting that viewers will recognise.
At this stage, I’d recommend you stop reading if you plan to see the film. A friend and I went to see it one night with zero expectations beyond the trailer and I honestly believe that’s how the film is best viewed. It may be a hard thing in this modern world; to see a film with no idea what to expect. But it’s worth it.
Fennel takes on the infamous Brideshead Revisited, a 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh, and what many would consider the first Dark Academia book and drags it into the 21st century. She modernises the setting of Oxford to match the image of academia and partying to one the audience would understand. The film retains the iconic settings of Oxford steeples, along with its brutal academic rigour, infamous drug scene, class division, and a large stately home which takes up the main portion of settings in the film, providing some truly visually stunning scenes. There’s even a nod to this heritage when the main character, Felix (played by Jacob Elordi) makes an offhand remark about how their house and family inspired Waugh, the author of Brideshead.
Fennel places her story in this clearly more contemporary world, allowing it to feel more real with flower crowns, Jager bombs and aggressively posh Uni students using terms such as ‘chirpsing’. The film feels gritty and real. Much like an actual British university, they drink excessively, smash glasses and have stripper poles in the club, remind anyone of a favourite club of Edinburgh students? The setting of the film in 2007 was a purposeful choice by Fennel, who states in an interview that she wanted to remind the audience that under the surface of glamour and wealth, these people fell victim to the same tragic fashion trends, poor fake tan and shitty tattoos just like everyone else. The soundtrack is straight out of a 2000s club playlist, adding to this feeling of youth and everything spiralling out of control, a drunken haze. Fennel takes care to contrast these hits with a few classic English hymns, such as Zadok the priest, bringing this sense of pomp and glory, and quite frankly Englishness, to some of the scenes.
The film is spoilt for choice, with a full cast of rich actors who perform magic, transporting the viewer into the world of the English aristocracy. Barry Keoghan steps into the role of Oliver perfectly, playing a dark and slightly mad character. In one interview Fennel even disclosed Keoghan was the one to decide to take the grave scene one step further and turn it into the horrific image that it is. At its heart the film is a very British dark comedy, full of witty one-liners and disturbing jokes that will make you shocked to be laughing. We must ask ourselves “Why do we like to be consumed by beauty?”, in order to better understand our tendency to idealise these British values which Fennel poignantly mocks.
The film subverts the nudity typically expected in film, we witness no female nudity; there are certainly no tits out for male gratification. The same can’t be said about the male bodies which Fennel invites to think of as naked and sexual numerous times, questioning limits and taboo.
My only criticism is that it hints at lots of themes which it never gets into fully.The film holds queer undertones so familiar in Brideshead - two boys who seem infatuated only with each other and a sister who can’t help but get in the way. Despite the film being set in the 21st century, it fails to explore the relationship and desire between the two boys. The film aims to be a critique of the British aristocracy, satirising their lifestyle and yet seems to continue to idealise and pity them.
If you enjoyed this film as much as I did and are looking for another film to capture your emotions similarly, I recommend you go watch; Riot Club (Lone Scherfig, 2014)-if you’re after more of that uncovering of the privileged lives at uni and symbolic violence. If you want to admire more of the scenery of the English Upper class; Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984). Finally, I’d recommend The Talented Mr Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999), which creates the same sense of unease, coupled with a stunning backdrop.
Saltburn is a film that will leave a bitter aftertaste in your mouth, well worth the watch.