Welcome to Brideshead Uninhibited. An orgy of rich people throwing big parties, lazing in the sun and doing unexpected things with bodily fluids, Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her revenge thriller Promising Young Woman does an elegant yet enjoyably rowdy line in blue-blooded chaos. A caviar-black comedy, it borrows from Evelyn Waugh, LP Hartley and Patricia Highsmith – with a twist of Ealing Comedy chutzpah – and makes an intoxicating modern cocktail from them.
As with her Oscar-winning debut, Fennell has a kind of revenge in mind here – although on a grander scale and perhaps on behalf of a country rapidly tiring of Bullingdon types. Her fizzy, sharp-witted script, set in Oxford and at the titular Lincolnshire pile circa 2007, does for the English aristocracy what Succession did for the offspring of capitalist tycoons, lampooning them as being cosseted by their wealth to the point of becoming a bit bovine. And as an Oxford grad who has presumably been to a few of these parties herself, she knows this milieu better than most.
The movie’s centrifugal force is Barry Keoghan’s Oxford Uni fresher-turned-social climber Oliver Quick. A Liverpudlian with a tragic backstory, he’s gauche enough to have done his prep reading ahead of term – ‘What, all of it?’ enquires his baffled tutor – but it soon dawns on him that it’s who and not what you know that counts in this stratified world.
Quickly, he’s shaking off his intense fellow outsider Michael (House of the Dragon’s Ewan Mitchell) and falling into the orbit of posh adonis Felix Catton (Priscilla’s Jacob Elordi). A soft-hearted golden boy seduced by his new friend’s hard-luck story, he invites Oliver back to his family’s enormous country house for a summer with his dim dad (Richard E Grant), hilariously indiscreet mother (Rosamund Pike) and troubled younger sis Venetia (Conversations With Friends’ Alison Oliver, excellent). Venetia is the smart one, so gets exiled to the fringes where Felix’s bitchy cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) schemes to undermine Oliver.
Rosamund Pike steals the film with a single ‘Oh, how wonderful!’
Full of lingering shots of neck hairs and buffed-up male torsos, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s glowing, up-close camerawork provides sharp jolts of homoerotic charge. It’s very bi, though: girls, boys, mums, dads, it feels like anything could go in this sunkissed, money-lubricated realm, and possibly the only reason it doesn’t is because it’s ‘not done’. And Duncan, the family’s terrifying butler, may be about.
Despite the wobbly accent, Keoghan is a perfect mix of brooding and unknowable as Oliver, while Elordi, so great at purveying a needy-but-toxic charm as Elvis in Priscilla, delivers off-the-charts charisma again here – as well as a believable fecklessness. As Oliver soon realises, you can stand in Felix’s light today and be a shadow by tomorrow. Pike, meanwhile, steals the film with a single ‘Oh, how wonderful!’
The bolts aren’t especially tight on the twisty-turny plotting, especially in a third act that proves countryside detective work has gone seriously downhill since Inspector Morse, and the jokiness occasionally obscures its smart satirical jabs at England’s class system. But beyond those half-successful twists, Saltburn is a hoot. Fennell has captured something real about these unreal people and the world they live in. Her film slices with a scalpel, peels back the layers and finds only hollowness beneath. Maybe that’s the real twist.
In cinemas worldwide Nov 17.