Emerald Fennell won an Academy Award for her first feature, Promising Young Woman (a sexual assault revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan) and now she’s back with her sophomore effort, Saltburn, starring everyone’s favorite rascal, Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin, Eternals).
Whereas Promising Young Woman was set in the US and had a “parallel universe” quality to it at times, Saltburn, at least on a surface level, feels perhaps more personal for Fennell, set amongst students in Oxford, where she went to university herself. Keoghan plays the proverbial scholarship boy, “struggling to fit in,” according to MGM’s official synopsis. “Ooh, nice tux,” a friend (Archie Madekwe) bitchily tells Keoghan’s Oliver in the trailer’s opening lines. “It’s a rental, right?”
Being the poorest kid at a school for the filthy rich is one of Hollywood’s most cherished setups, giving us everything from Beverly Hills 90210 to The OC, but Saltburn quickly shifts into Talented Mr. Ripley mode when Oliver’s friend, the aristocratic Felix, invites Oliver to Felix’s family’s estate at the titular Saltburn. There, where Oliver will spend “a summer never to be forgotten” (per the synopsis) his feelings of unease soon grow beyond the sense that he wore the wrong suit.
Meanwhile, almost from the first frames, Fennell distinguishes herself from other writers-turned-directors, whose compositions can tend towards utilitarian (think Kevin Smith), with stylized imagery combining ornate gothic architecture with fractal closeups (I counted at least three mirror shots), creative center frames, and borrowing Yorgos Lanthimos’s fish eye lens from The Favourite for the manor’s interiors. If Saltburn flops, it won’t be for lack of style.
Australian Jacob Elordi, previously of Euphoria, plays Felix, expanding his repertoire of probably-evil handsome dudes to encompass nearly every accent. The always great Rosamund Pike plays Oliver’s mother, with charmingly disguised menace, while Fennell has cast Keoghan, normally the slit-eyed wild card, boldly against type playing what appears to be Saltburn’s closest thing to a straight man.
Keoghan already has a BAFTA win and an Oscar nomination (both for Banshees) and seems like a lock to win an Academy Award some time in the next five years. It’s much too early to start handicapping Saltburn’s Oscar chances, but at the very least, its November 24th release (in select theaters) is smack in the middle of awards season