Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) arrives in Oxford, ostracised from his well-heeled and aristocratic classmates. Drawn to the dashing and charismatic Felix (Jacob Elordi), he soon finds himself in his palatial country manor - Saltburn. Navigating Felix's parents (Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant) as well as his sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and his American cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), Oliver begins to entangle himself in their opulent but sinister world...
Much of what makes 'Saltburn' so tantalising initially is the fact that you've got a game cast tied together with a writer-director unafraid to make bold and controversial moves in a script and in a movie. 'Promising Young Woman' was a dark and twisted comedy about the permission structures that allow men to brutalise women. It was a movie that, for better or worse, pissed off a lot of people. There are plenty of well-written pieces about why it's a great movie, and a terrible one. Undeniably, 'Saltburn' is going to spin up the discourse machine when it hits cinemas because of how it approaches class conflict and social climbing - especially as it's written and directed by someone who isn't exactly a member of the great unwashed.
In fact, going into 'Saltburn', it's impossible to not have your hackles up. There's something about that upper-class English accent that just immediately sets teeth on edge. You're immediately aware of the general pomposity and the irksome cadence, to say nothing of the questionable fashion choices littered throughout the movie. 'Saltburn' never makes it easy for you to engage with or even connect with any of the characters. It's not that characters have to be likeable in order to connect with them, but they've at least got to be somewhat understandable. 'Saltburn' amuses itself by keeping the audience guessing as to who's really up to what, and where it's all going. Of course, when it gets there, it all feels so blindingly obvious because it's all been done before.
Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi are a marvellous pair on screen together. Elordi's unaffected handsomeness and easy charm slices against Keoghan's painful yearning, while Archie Madewke and Alison Oliver act as a push and pull between them. The real standout performance of the piece, however, is Rosamund Pike. Far and away, Pike has some of the best lines and jokes in the entire movie - including a brief, throwaway gag about Pulp's 'Common People'. Richard E. Grant accesses an eccentricity in his performance not seen since 'Withnail and I', while Carey Mulligan has an extended cameo as a feckless houseguest at Saltburn. All of the casting choices are terrific, and they're all clearly game and understand the heightened atmopshere in Fennell's script, but it still never sits just as it should and you often feel cheated. In the end, it comes up as something reaching for something rather than saying something.
'Saltburn' is like a strong, expensive liqueur - it can appear seductive, will probably be repulsive, when you've had it, you'll probably only ever experience it once, but it's nothing if not memorable.