On the Screen: ‘Saltburn’ weird and fun, not as sharp as Fennell’s first outing

Since “Saltburn,” the second film by director Emerald Fennell, came to streaming last month, I’ve seen a lot of conversation about the film on social media. Truly all that conversation has centered on exactly one scene — involving a bathtub — and how shocking and gross it was. Having seen the film, that scene is hardly the worst it has to offer, but the film differed even more wildly from my expectations.

The film, on its surface, looks like a love story between its two leads — Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick and Jacob Elordi as Felix Catton — a romance twisted by the wealth and excess of the latter’s family.

“I loved him, I loved him, I loved him,” Oliver says in an opening monologue. “But was I in love with him?”

Ultimately, there is little to no actual romance on display. The film is instead an angry and spiraling account of wealth and excess that calls to mind a growing number of class warfare “eat the rich” films like “Parasite,” “Knives Out,” “Ready or Not” or “The Menu.” I love those movies. I didn’t really like “Saltburn.”

The film follows Oliver, an Oxford student who doesn’t fit in with his upper-class peers. He becomes obsessed with Felix, a wealthy and charismatic classmate — voyeuristically watching him interact with friends and with romantic partners.

After a chance encounter puts the two men into one another’s orbit, they begin to spend time together. When summer break rolls around, Oliver joins Felix in returning home to his family’s estate: Saltburn.

There Oliver enters a bizarre upper-class world of parties and rules, one of several people orbiting the Catton family and benefiting from their money. He’s described as a “moth” drawn to their flame.

Felix’s parents, Lady Elspeth and Sir James, are played by Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant, who perfectly balance eccentricity with condescension.

Oliver deftly manipulates the people around him at Saltburn for his own gain. He flatters Lady Elspeth, outmaneuvers Felix’s cousin Farleigh, and has charged encounters with Felix’s sister Venetia.

It all comes to a surprisingly macabre end, with twist reveals both shocking and silly.

I had been looking forward to this film. Fennell’s first movie, 2020’s “Promising Young Woman,” was weird and radical and biting in ways that fascinated me and kept me thinking despite misgivings with the ending. It’s disappointing that “Saltburn” has plenty of weird — very memorable and fun weird — but falls short of making any interesting statements on its subject matter.

“Saltburn” is beautifully shot — imaginative camera work and great lighting making for easily one of the most stylish films I saw in 2023. The performances, too, are great. Keoghan is spectacular — as are the rest of the cast.

When all is said and done, “Saltburn” isn’t about a romance between Oliver and Felix, or even about the impact of immense wealth disparity on the Cattons and those who are drawn to them. It’s ultimately just a dark, intimate character piece for Keoghan as the deeply twisted and manipulative Oliver Quick.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but after all the flirting this film did with themes of wealth, class, obsession and connection, I found myself perhaps incorrectly looking for something that just wasn’t present in the film.

“Saltburn” is a film that will keep people talking. It’s a very fun watch that had my living room laughing and sometimes also shouting. It’s got great actors playing fun characters and a sense of style that does a lot of heavy lifting. It’s also not very deep. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.