By Alex Yates | 22nd November 2023 | Vue Cinema, Edinburgh|​​​​​​​ 🍺🍺🍻

Saltburn lays its foundations on uncanny, fertile soil. The film sets its roots in perhaps one of the most unsettling locations in British history – Oxford University. For many, Oxford is archetypical of the inaccessible, the odd (due to outdated customs entrenched in rich history) and simultaneously the idyllic. Emerald Fennel does not shy away from the electricity that can be generated by these opposing qualities and it is during the Oxford sequence of the film where Saltburn functions best. The first act is tremendous; we are introduced to an outcast Oliver, and an extroverted, attractive, millionaire named Felix at the beginning of their Oxford careers. The direction is subtle and effective; the relationship feels unstable but authentic on a certain level, and we have genuinely moving moments between the characters that shine through. Fennell also sets out growing this uncanny feeling that overhangs the first act which leaves the viewer absolutely in suspense of what is to come. There is more to both Oliver and Felix than meets the eye, though we do not know what exactly that may be. The cinematography is truly gorgeous, the scenery even more so and the story encaptivating. Saltburn at this point is saturated in potential; tragically it is saturated in potential that is never properly unearthed.
From the point where Oliver leaves to stay at Felix’s family manor, Saltburn is never really sure what it wants to achieve. Barry Keoghan does what he does best, transforming from dejected prey to erratic predator, this case in the confines of British sky-high societal living. The scenario shifts from being reminiscent of Call Me By Your Name to The Shining or The Talented Mr. Ripley, with a splash of Lynchian surrealism thrown in there for good measure. It sounds like something right up my street, though the problem lies in the fact that it never comfortably or convincingly finds itself. Class conflict is aggressively flirted with, Oliver quite literally sucks at the life fluid that sustains the repulsively upper-class family, but the rug is pulled out from under us when it is revealed that Oliver himself comes from a relatively wealthy background. This perhaps would be fine if it had happened sooner; the class conflict had already had too much time to take root, and it leaves one feeling largely unsatisfied. The perfect rhythm from the first act becomes syncopated and each beat just seems to miss the mark. The cinematography however remains spellbinding, with some shots that quite literally look like they would fare well in a photography competition, though the powerful imagery, the symbolism is rendered largely hollow because of the disjointed plotline.
This film could and should have been at once a state-of-the-nation film, and an engrossingly mystical tale; the parallels to angels, to Minotaur, to mazes and webs end up going nowhere of merit. Upsettingly it all falls short. The ending misfires horrendously, with a ‘here’s how I did it’ montage that is not as clever as it thinks it is, and summarises the decapitated nature of the story itself.

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