Review: Saltburn offers a few images you might wish you could unsee

Saltburn (15), (127 mins), Cineworld Cinemas
Barry Keoghan as Oliver in Saltburn. Pic by PrimeBarry Keoghan as Oliver in Saltburn. Pic by Prime
Barry Keoghan as Oliver in Saltburn. Pic by Prime

One of the weirdest films you will see all year, Saltburn repeatedly defies you to work out what kind of film you are actually watching.

It’s clearly a slow-burning psychological thriller, but at times it’s horror; it’s also a not particularly funny black comedy, a satire on the class system, a dissection of the extremes of have and have-not and also perhaps a moral tale about the dangers of decadence and self-indulgence, all served up in images you will probably wish you could unsee. It’s certainly not a film to take your grandmother to. There is longing there, there is jealousy, there is depravity – and there is also a desire, a bit trashy at times, simply to shock.

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At the centre of it all is Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, a nerdy, mega awkward, loner who turns up for his first term at Oxford and finds himself instantly, predictably friendless. Only a super-nerd mathematician shows the least bit of (highly unwelcome) interest – and here the film trots out, almost cartoonishly, a few little Oxbridge prejudices and misperceptions. It’s supposed to be 2006, but heaven alone knows to which decade belongs the scathing line that Oliver is “the scholarship boy who buys his clothes at Oxfam” and is therefore distinctly persona non grata.

But to make it all worse, Brideshead like, he espies another world, one of wealth and privilege, in the shape of the supercool Felix Catton, played with drawling self-confidence and entitlement by Jacob Elordi. Oliver tells him his own parents are addicts living in squalor; Felix, on the other hand, is the off-spring of the aristocratic owners of the most enormous country pile. And when Oliver turns up at Felix’s college room door to tell him that his drunken father has fallen, cracked his head and died, kind-hearted Felix invites him back for summer at the Saltburn estate of the title.

There Rosamund Pike is the sweetly charming matriarch; Richard E Grant is the relentlessly cheerful rather bonkers father; Alison Oliver is the damaged siren of a sister Venetia; and their college mate, Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), sworn enemy to Oliver, is the threatening houseguest, alongside Carey Mulligan who is dissolutely ensconced.

It’s a summer of endless idleness and indolence and of complete purposelessness amid all the opulence. But soon the tensions are simmering. It soon emerges there’s a rather dodgy side to Oliver. Is he the moth drawn to the glow of wealth or is he, rather more sinisterly, the cuckoo? It's nicely, uncomfortably poised… and the only safe thing seems to be to take very little at face value and await the fall-out. When it comes, it’s a terrific ending, nicely paced and suitably challenging. Keoghan, whom we also see a few years later, looks far too old as the younger version of himself – which is certainly distracting. But it’s an excellent performance as the unknowable Oliver. Excellent too from Jacob Elordi as Felix. There is charm amid the debauchery, and director Emerald Fennell allows the threat to grow effectively. It’s an unsettling watch, but it’s an intriguing one too, with plenty of comic touches in its depiction of a world that very few of us will actually recognise.