Saltburn Review: A Struggle in Opulence

Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn emerges as a visually stunning yet narratively disjointed portrayal of class conflict, ambition, and identity. Set against the backdrop of an aristocratic English estate, the film weaves an intricate narrative that delves into the power dynamics of the elite. Despite its thematic richness and stylistic elegance, Saltburn struggles with narrative cohesion, oscillating between moments of brilliance and scenes of excess.

At the heart of Saltburn is Oliver Quick, a character brought to life with a nuanced performance by Barry Keoghan. Oliver, a working-class student at Oxford University, finds himself entangled in the lives of the wealthy elite, particularly that of the aristocratic Felix Catton, played by Jacob Elordi. This initial meeting marks the beginning of Oliver’s journey, which is as much about his internal struggle with identity and ambition as it is about his external conflicts within this privileged world​​​​​​.

The film’s setting, the eponymous Saltburn estate, is a grand stage for the unfolding drama. Its opulence mirrors the decadence and moral ambiguity of its inhabitants. Director Fennell, alongside cinematographer Linus Sandgren, captures this grandeur, drawing the audience into a world where wealth serves as both a façade and a trap. The supporting cast, particularly Rosamund Pike as Elspeth, the family matriarch, adds depth and vibrancy to the narrative, each character embodying different aspects of this extravagant yet hollow society​​.

However, Saltburn’s ambitious thematic exploration is at times undercut by its own stylistic and narrative excesses. While the film excels in its visual storytelling, the plot sometimes meanders, losing its grip on the audience. Scenes intended to shock and provoke occasionally cross into the realm of gratuitousness, detracting from the film’s emotional depth and thematic resonance​​​​.

Fennell’s exploration of class dynamics, initially intriguing, gradually becomes predictable. The portrayal of the wealthy as morally corrupt and the poor as enviously aspirational is not a novel concept in cinema. Saltburn attempts to bring a fresh perspective to this narrative, but it often relies on clichés, failing to offer new insights into the societal divide it aims to critique​​.

The film’s narrative structure, while ambitious, is another area where it falters. The non-linear storytelling, intended to add complexity, at times feels unnecessarily convoluted. This approach, while effective in creating a sense of intrigue, can leave the viewer disoriented, making it difficult to fully engage with the characters and their motivations.

Moreover, the film’s treatment of its central themes – class, identity, and ambition – lacks the subtlety and nuance required for a truly profound exploration. Scenes that are meant to be emblematic of these themes sometimes feel heavy-handed, detracting from the overall impact of the narrative.

In its depiction of Oliver’s transformation, Saltburn walks a fine line between a character study and a moral tale. Keoghan’s portrayal of Oliver’s descent into the morally ambiguous world of the elite is compelling, yet the character’s motivations and inner turmoil are not always convincingly portrayed. The film’s attempt to navigate the complexities of Oliver’s identity and his aspirations within the context of class struggle is admirable, but it often feels like the film is skimming the surface of these deeper issues.

Saltburn is a film that shows promise but ultimately fails to deliver a cohesive and impactful narrative. While it succeeds in creating a visually arresting world and features strong performances, particularly from Keoghan, it struggles to balance its stylistic grandeur with a coherent story. The film is a fascinating exploration of class and identity, but it lacks the depth and subtlety needed to make it a truly compelling cinematic experience. Fennell’s ambition and vision are evident, but Saltburn remains a film that, while engaging, leaves the audience wanting more substance to match its style.

James Ewen
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