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Film Review: SALTBURN (2023): Emerald Fennell’s Latest Struggles a Bit to Live Up To Expectations Despite Good Acting

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Barry Keoghan Saltburn

Saltburn Review

Saltburn (2023) Film Review, a movie written and directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Archie Madekwe, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Sadie Soverall, Millie Kent, Carey Mulligan, Will Gibson, Paul Rhys, Matthew Carver, Ewan Mitchell, Aleah Aberdeen, Joshua Samuels and Reece Shearsmith.

Movie reviews can be problematic when critics try to size up a movie’s plot and compare it to that of other previous pictures. With filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s new drama, Saltburn, almost every review I’ve read compares the new picture to The Talented Mr. Ripley. Luckily, I forgot about this comparison for a while watching Saltburn and enjoyed the first half of Fennell’s new movie immensely. After seeing the entire new movie, I can honestly say those The Talented Mr. Ripley comparisons are sort of unjustified in several respects. Despite some similarities in terms of the films’ plots, Barry Keoghan’s role is simply not even close to Matt Damon’s when inspecting both roles closely. Keoghan’s performance is something of an original in Saltburn and the picture, though overlong and overstuffed, has some genuinely intriguing moments that will captivate the viewer.

The film opens with Keoghan’s character, Oliver Quick, professing his admiration for the character known as Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). It appears something dire has happened but we don’t know, exactly, what it is at this point. We see that Oliver was a student at Oxford and one of his fellow students, Felix, gets a flat tire on his bicycle one day. The awkward Oliver lends the wealthy Felix his own bike and thus a friendship is formed that is further enhanced when Felix helps Oliver to pay an open tab at the local bar. When something devastating apparently happens to Oliver’s dad, Felix steps in and offers to take Oliver home with him to a wealthy estate, Saltburn; hence the film’s title.

Richard E. Grant and Rosamund Pike portray Felix’s parents, James and Elspeth Catton who are wealthy and run an unusual household. Tossed into the new film is also Promising Young Woman star, Carey Mulligan. She plays a tattooed character known as Poor Dear Pamela who is unlucky in love and is residing in the mansion where the Cattons live though James and Elspeth wouldn’t mind if Pamela left their residence some time in the immediate future, preferably now. Also on board is Felix’s cousin, Farleigh (deliciously played by Archie Madekwe) who keeps a close eye on Oliver especially when he starts to get “romantically” entangled with the beautiful, yet confused, Venetia Catton (Alison Oliver).

Saltburn plods along at a snail’s pace for quite a while before making some unusual turns with its twisty plot. This film is never boring, however, thanks to the turns by Keoghan and Elordi who have terrific on-screen charisma even though in the case of Keoghan, Oliver is not supposed to be immediately charismatic. Or is he? The way the plot develops may actually need Oliver to be personable in order to get off on the right foot with the Catton family. In fact, this makes me want to see the movie again and watch some of the early scenes more closely.

If you’ve read a review of Saltburn other than this one, you’ve heard about the wild scenes that are showcased in the film, even if you probably don’t know all the specifics. One of the most daring sequences comes when Venetia is having her period and Oliver takes some blood onto his finger and…well you’ll have to see the movie to find out. There are other scenes that are way out there and I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves. Keoghan gets a chance to shine in his birthday suit a couple of times throughout the movie with his final unveiling almost a guarantee he will not secure an Oscar nod for Best Actor unless the Academy has come a long way from the days of Mark Wahlberg’s last scene in Boogie Nights from 1997.

Rosamund Pike gets some of the new movie’s juiciest dialogue as her character seems a bit confused at times discussing her life experiences. Elspeth grows attached to Oliver which will certainly help fulfill the logistics of the plot as the story line develops. Pike has a supporting role here that she relishes in and it’s probably her best cinematic turn since I Care a Lot. This role certainly shows Pike’s range as an actress.

Elordi plays off Keoghan like a true master of his craft. Elordi’s character is probably the one you’ll side with during the course of the movie and it’s to the movie’s credit that Felix feels plausible throughout the whole picture. As Venetia, Alison Oliver turns in a flawless performance playing off Keoghan just as well as Elordi does. The plot doesn’t form a coherent whole, though, because the movie depends on plot twists that don’t always feel as authentic as the performances do.

Saltburn is a fascinating movie nevertheless. Fennell can capture the viewer’s attention even in the simplest scenes the movie offers. This film suffers, though, when compared to Fennell’s previous masterpiece, Promising Young Woman, but movies like that other gem of Fennell’s are few and far between. Then, there’s the pesky matter of those The Talented Mr. Ripley comparisons. Saltburn is not always really a thriller like that 1999 Matt Damon picture. Still, that Damon picture had set a pretty high bar and Saltburn comes in somewhere just underneath that bar.

Keoghan and Elordi make Saltburn a compelling picture, though. The one thing you don’t expect from the opening scenes of this film is to see the raw scenes of Keoghan in his birthday suit that the movie offers. So, Fennell’s new picture is not really predictable in the least although some viewers may figure out the several major twists along the way if they pay close attention to the details of the film. The first half of Saltburn was more enjoyable than the second half but the movie has enough going on to warrant a viewing or two. Or three. Just to put all the pieces of it together correctly.

Rating: 7/10

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