Michael Jarvie urges us not to bother with Saltburn
Saltburn, directed by Emerald Fennell, is a feature film from 2023, currently available to watch on Amazon Prime. The protagonist, Oliver Quick, is from Prescot in Merseyside and is played by the Irish actor Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Banshees of Inisherin). The sense of Oliver being a fish out of water is immediately emphasised upon his arrival at Oxford University in 2006. As he is walking into the college precincts with his wheeled suitcase, to the strains of Handel’s Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest, an American undergraduate sarcastically comments, “Cool jacket!”
Late for his tutorial, the same student, who we now learn is called Farleigh, then proceeds to criticise Oliver’s use of the word “thus” in his essay. As Oliver points out, Farleigh can only resort to criticising the style of the essay, not its content, because he hasn’t actually read the books on the summer’s reading list, whereas Oliver has read all fifty of them, including that weighty tome, the King James Bible.
Confiding in the upper-class Felix Catton, the son of Sir James Catton, Oliver frankly admits that his parents suffer from severe mental health and drug abuse problems and gives the impression, aided by his Scouse accent, that he is impoverished and working-class. Felix’s friend Annabel affirms this when she describes Oliver as “a scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam”. Later, Oliver spins a story that his father has died, to further ingratiate himself with Felix.
Monkeys and organ grinders
As a result of these concerted efforts, we feel it’s only a matter of time before Oliver becomes a performing monkey, with Felix being the organ grinder. As their relationship develops, Oliver asks Felix what they taught him at boarding school, to which the latter facetiously replies, “Latin, water polo and child abuse.”
Once Felix invites Oliver to spend the summer holidays at his parents’ lavish country estate – the Saltburn of the title – we learn that this must be a regular occurrence since Venetia tells Oliver, “I think I like you more than last year’s one”. And as the story progresses, Felix supinely offers up his belly to be tickled like a cat by his new acquisition. After all, the name itself is almost a tautology. Felix Catton is reminiscent of Felix the Cat as well as suggesting the scientific name for the domestic cat, Felis Catus.
The Saltburn estate, complete with two black footmen and Duncan the creepy butler, affords cinematographer Linus Sandgren ample opportunities to linger over its posh porn aspects, and if that were not sufficient, Felix offers a verbal commentary, pointing out to Oliver on his tour of the property the old master on display (a “hideous” Rubens) and the obligatory copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. When Sir James and Lady Elspeth Catton decide to throw a birthday party for Oliver, Felix’s parasitical cousin Farleigh shows further contempt for Oliver when he cajoles him into singing his karaoke choice of “Rent” by the Pet Shop Boys:
You dress me up, I’m your puppet,
You buy me things, I love it,
You bring me food, I need it,
You give me love, I feed it…
Nevertheless, there are sufficient clues scattered throughout the film for us to question Oliver’s self-described status as a brainy proletarian from a dysfunctional home. Metaphorically he is pictured by his hosts as a predatory spider as well as a destructive moth, to which one might add Oliver’s own description of himself as a kind of vampire, in terms of the commingling of blood that occurs during his alfresco encounter with Felix’s sister Venetia.
For it soon transpires that Oliver Quick has lied about his background – when Felix takes Oliver on a surprise visit to Prescot he is shocked to learn that Oliver’s parents own a comfortable detached property on a middle-class housing estate, they have more than one child (Oliver claims to be an only child) and they go to Mykonos on holiday every year. Oliver is consequently an upwardly mobile individual with a ruthless streak. For him, movement from one class to another is represented by an ascending trajectory. Moreover, that which exits on a higher economic plane is automatically viewed as being superior.
Aristocratic fear of losing their wealth
As for the inhabitants of the Saltburn estate, these effete members of the upper class are portrayed as loveable eccentrics who are essentially harmless. In death, Felix is preposterously portrayed as an angel, slaughtered by an antlered beast. This is arguably a whitewashing exercise, a case of defensive projection if you like, in which the upper class, fearful of losing their ill-gotten wealth, assign their own rapacious instinctual drives to someone from an inferior social class.
In reality, the aristocracy are paid-up supporters of and cheerleaders for neoliberalism, since they benefit from it financially and are unaffected by such regressive policies as austerity and the dismantling of the NHS, so long as they are able to enjoy lower rates of taxation, charitable status for their public schools and other associated perks.
Despite desperately wanting to appear as an arch satire of upper-class manners, the problem is that Saltburn only presents a litany of caricatures. What’s more, none of them possess any redeeming features. The film’s director, Emerald Fennell, is herself an archetypal nepo baby, born into the same privilege as the fictional character of Venetia Catton. Public-school educated, she followed the well-trodden route of such entitled individuals, reading English at Oxford University – Greyfriars College – before writing a screenplay in 2008, commissioned and co-produced by family friend Madeleine Lloyd Webber. She is also the author of the children’s novel Shiverton Hall, published by Bloomsbury. Her father, Theo Fennell, is an Eton-educated jewellery designer, whose clients include Sir Elton John and Madonna; her mother Louise is a novelist and screenwriter. Emerald Fennell therefore comes from the same production line that brought us Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
The film ends with Oliver deliberately engineering an encounter with Lady Elspeth in London, so that he can inveigle himself into her life, followed by a flashback sequence that explains how all the earlier events were set in motion by Oliver – including how he deliberately punctured the tyre of Felix’s bike so that he could appear in the guise of a Good Samaritan by offering Felix the use of his own bicycle. None of this should come as a shocking twist, since it’s been self-evident from the very beginning and Oliver’s portentous monologue, which already speaks of Felix in the past tense.
Although Saltburn includes a hamfisted reference to the maze in Kubrick’s The Shining, the closest cinematic analogues from a thematic and visual perspective are A Clockwork Orange, The Talented Mr Ripley, and perhaps even more pertinent, the television series from 1981, Brideshead Revisited, with its latent homosexual relationship between Charles Ryder (the Oliver figure) and Lord Sebastian Flyte (the Felix figure). In the latter work Diana Quick played Julia Flyte, Sebastian’s sister, so perhaps Oliver Quick is a not-so-subtle nod in that direction.
As a film, Saltburn is all surface with no depth, as shallow as the residue of bathwater from which Oliver slurps, in between his pretentious to-camera monologues. Visually, the font for the opening credits is a lurid red – Gothic in style, like some sort of latter-day Hammer Horror production. Perhaps that also accounts for the aspect ratio being 1.33:1, about as old school as they come, just like the Times New Roman font that Lady Elspeth chooses for the gravestone of her son.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a much more aesthetically satisfying piece of cinema exploring a similar theme, then I would urge you to watch Joseph Losey’s classic black-and-white masterpiece The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde, with its magnificent screenplay by Harold Pinter.