Saltburn Review: One Hot Mess

Uneven satire boasts some strong performances, but proves empty

“I’m so fucking hot,” moans Felix (Jacob Elordi) in Saltburn.

“It’s hotter than Barbados, apparently. Barbados!” exclaims James (Richard E. Grant).

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been hotter in my life!” agrees Elspeth (Rosamund Pike).

Yes, everyone in Saltburn is hot—like, Barbados-level scorching. Sizzling! Dripping! Steaming! Piping hot! You get the picture. Even Barry Keoghan, fresh off playing the daft sad-sack in The Banshees of Inisherin, enjoys unexpected magnetism in his screen presence. Director Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) aims to set the loins a-blazing with this seductively scintillating psycho-sexual drama. And nobody’s burning up quite like Keoghan’s Oliver. As he gazes thirstily as Felix’s well-toned body, which glistens in the stuffy halls of Saltburn, nothing slakes his lust. It drives the young man mad, too, that he desires more of the high life after Felix lets him taste a drop. Saltburn dives into the British class system and finds nothing but stagnant waters as greed and jealousy push common Oliver to the brink with envy as Felix welcomes him into his family’s estate, Saltburn, for one burning hot summer.


Hot Stuff, Coming Through

Oliver finds himself smitten with Felix during a semester at Oxford. Oliver lurks around the edges, though, as the other student peg him as a scholarship baby. That’s “new money” to them, while he gazes enviously at the “old money” his privileged peers wear comfortably. He’s particularly taken to Felix’s confidence and chiseled looks. The young man rules the campus like a frat house Adonis. Oliver insinuates himself into Felix’s life and tells him a sob story about a dead dad and an alcoholic mother. Felix takes up Oliver like a pet, one picked up from the humane society and saved from the needle. But this cute little puppy bites.

At Saltburn, though, everyone’s all bark. Felix’s parents, James and Elspeth, lounge around and volley barbed witticisms with their daughter, Venetia (Alison Oliver), charity case Pamela (Carey Mulligan, actually credited as “Poor Dear Pamela”), and Felix’s other dog Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). They pose by the pool, sipping cocktails all day, and dress for dinner at night. This estate is one of those grand English relics where servants lurk in secret passageways, unloading one’s suitcase before one even finds the bedroom. Things go bump in the night here, too, as the summer heat leaves everyone, notably Oliver, horny as a hounddog.

Double entendres titillate and come-hither looks beckon—by now, do you get how hot everyone is?—and Oliver’s behaviour loses its rationality once an extended stay at Saltburn becomes more appealing by the day. Yet Fennell observes that this elegant manor, with portraits of dead relatives on the walls and a lush maze in the garden, is nothing to desire.

Pretty But Empty

For all the hotness on parade, the vapidity is a bit too meta for its own good. It’s never really clear what, if anything, Fennell wants to say here. Saltburn satirizes Britain’s antiquated social structures, but it’s class warfare via a battle of raging hormones.


Moreover, as Oliver lusts after Felix, who in turn seduces Oliver while Farleigh grows green with envy, the film lapses into a conflation of queerness and mental illness that’s as retrograde as Britain’s class system. Admittedly, that aspect is especially frustrating after Fennell’s sharply satirical take on gender in Promising Young Woman. It plays like trendy queer-baiting.

Saltburn aims to be a bisexual buffet of hotness, but everyone comes off as a deranged pervert…this is the kind of movie where someone performs cunnilingus out in the open, and engages in quickly in a little menstrual blood play. Like, yuck.

Making things more uncomfortable is the fact that every shot in Saltburn, even those stamped with a period, looks gorgeous. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren ensures that Saltburn seems very, very expensive. There’s an incredible amount of care in these compositions that accentuate the glamour and the emptiness. But, like life at Saltburn, there’s more thought put into appearances than substance. There’s just a deadness to the film that proves suffocating. Fennell’s sophomore effort as a director marks a genuine visual accomplishment, but it’s hampered by a lurching tempo, grating needle drops, and a clown car of plot holes that reveal themselves in the grand finale. It still sees a promising voice working itself out, even if it doesn’t quite deliver on her provocatively thrilling debut.

The Hottest Stars

Saltburn’s a mess—a hot mess, at that!—but it’s also never boring. Fennell finds the sweet spot between posh and trash, and the camp factor resonates thanks to her hand with the actors. Keoghan delivers a maniacal thrill playing the lead and downplays Oliver’s unhinged menace, giving the young man more levels than the script affords him. Elordi, naturally, is cast to perfection. After the miscasting as Elvis in Priscilla, Elordi’s presence illustrates how well sharp casting makes or breaks a film. His posh accent is spot on, as is the poise and charisma that marks Felix as steps above Oliver. But he also lends Felix the right amount of self-awareness to suggest that Oliver isn’t the only one with ill intentions.


Mulligan, meanwhile, proves memorable in her brief appearance as the pitiable Pamela. One misses her once she exits the picture, but as characters refer to her (and never in a nice way) her memory gives Saltburn the occasional spark. Grant perfectly balances dry humour with James’s simplicity. As much as Oliver envies these people, they aren’t particularly deep or interesting, and Grant has a lot of fun sending up the upper crust.

Finally, Pike delivers a deadpan hilarious performance as Elspeth, the matriarch of Saltburn. Pike has a sense for comedic timing that doesn’t get enough credit. With a single reading, she leaves one wondering if Elspeth is cruel or merely ignorant. She creates a woman who has been long shielded by her privilege, cutting in her repartee but too sheltered to understand the meaning behind Oliver’s quick replies. Her wickedly funny turn sets the screen ablaze—the hottest of the hot. One only wishes that Saltburn could be the film that Pike thought she was making.

Saltburn opens in theatres November 22.