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Why people sin, according to Emerald Fennell: A Review of Saltburn

Writing by Marly Harper- Lalor, photography by Isabela Caramico.

Why do people sin? According to Emerald Fennell, writer and director of Saltburn, it seems that they commit sins, such as murdering their best friend and his entire family, either because they’re stereotypical psychopaths or because they’re poor (-er than their blue-blooded, castle-dwelling friend). Or, as in the case of Oliver Quick, Saltburn’s main character, they do so because they’re a confused combination of the two. Sorry for the spoiler but, honestly, the ‘twist’- namely, that Oliver becomes a serial killer in order to own the castle- is a disappointment rather than a highlight. My advice would be, go and watch the film up to the point when Oliver wakes up after his terrible birthday party (he wanders around in a pair of antlers all night, all the posh people forget his name when they sing him ‘Happy Birthday’, and he has a devastating fight with the soon-to-be-murdered best friend) then leave the cinema and just make up the rest of the film, because whatever you make up will undoubtedly be more interesting than what actually happens.

The film up to that point is great. It follows Oliver, masterfully played by Barry Keoghan, as he starts at Oxford University. He’s a scholarship student with a strong Merseyside accent and is initially a social outcast due to the perceived class difference between him and the rest of the wealthy, upper-class Oxford students. But when he notices Felix Catton, the handsome, charismatic boy at the centre of the popular group, played by Jacob Elordi in a perfect casting choice, he quickly becomes Felix’s friend. Intrigued by Oliver’s poverty and addiction-stricken background but also seeming genuinely sympathetic, Felix invites Oliver to his family’s country house for the summer. There, Oliver meets Felix’s eccentric, (literally) entitled family and, as the summer goes on, tensions and lurking dangers emerge. The shots are interesting, the script is powerful yet funny, and the class difference is adeptly utilised as a motivating force for drama and intrigue. The sense of threat is real but, as viewers, we’re not sure where it’s coming from – the Catton family or, perhaps, from Oliver himself? He’s obsessed with Felix, but the nature of this obsession is unclear. He insists early on – to an unseen interviewer in mysterious cutaways - that he loved Felix, but he wasn’t in love with Felix. Yet the question hovers in the air whenever Oliver gazes at Felix across a room: does he want to be with Felix, romantically, or does he want to be Felix?

Then Felix is found dead and for about five minutes the question seems answered: he wants to be Felix, in a talented Mr. Ripley-esque manner, trying to weasel his way into the lives of the more privileged, fatally usurping the family’s golden boy and taking on the role for himself. Then he kills the sister and the mother, but not before getting her to change her will, and both question and answer have morphed, or vanished. The film rapidly dissolves into a tired instantiation of the timeless fear possessed by some in the landowning classes that those with fewer material means are going to kill them in order to steal their castle, a kind of feudal patriarch’s fever-dream. Oliver’s character incurs the collateral damage of this simplistic plot line. Up until this point Oliver’s psychology and motivations are complicated, subtle and obscure, but by the end of the film he comes across as simply an evil mastermind plotting murder for the sake of material gain. We’re even treated to a series of Agatha Christie-style flashbacks revealing Oliver’s deadly scheming, such as Oliver furtively tipping poison into the bottle he gives Felix to drink (just in case we weren’t following). It seems the only thing we can conclude is that he simply wanted the castle all along. Specifically, based on the final scene, to dance naked along the castle’s never-ending corridors doing lines of coke off strategically placed silver platters to the soundtrack of ‘Murder on the Dance Floor’ – which is, despite the disappointing denouement that leads up to it, a great scene.

How are we supposed to interpret the film’s ending? Is it a cautionary tale to Fennell’s Oxford pals? – ‘if that state school kid who used to try to catch your eye in the library ever reaches out on Facebook, whatever you do, DO NOT invite him to your country estate!!’ Or is it just a film that turns out to have no serious argument at its core and makes no assertion about the world that feels true and interesting? I don’t know why Fennell couldn’t reach beyond the feudal patriarch’s fever dream to tell a story that does justice to her actors’ performances and her own cinematographic vision. But, as a result, we are left with a film that, in the final act, resembles the daft aristocrats it mocks: beautiful, boring and oblivious to the realities of others.

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