Saltburn review: Barry Keoghan delivers a powerhouse performance in jet-black class comedy

Barry Keoghan (on right) in Saltburn.MGM

Saltburn is a grim, perverted, hilarious tale about the class divide in Britain, featuring a darkly satirical script by writer-director Emerald Fennell, and anchored by a spectacular performance from rising star Barry Keoghan.

The Irish actor stole scenes in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Broke our collective hearts in The Banshees of Inisherin. And in Saltburn, you can’t take your eyes off the youngster as his cold-blooded outsider infiltrates the blue-bloods of England’s high society.

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Fennell clearly has much on her mind, regarding privilege, race, and social status, and it feels like there’s something rotting beneath every frame of her film.

But Saltburn is also very funny, with colorful character’s doing awful things to each other in blackly comic fashion, so-much-so that when the credits roll, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.

What is Saltburn about?

Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a student at Oxford University in 2006. Who is something of an outsider, being from Prescott in Merseyside – which no one has heard of, seemingly. And being referred to as the “scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam.”

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Olly cuts a lonely, isolated figure, frozen out of the fun stuff on campus. With only a maths student with anger issues for company. Then one days he does a kindness for another student – Felix Catton – and everything changes for Oliver. Because as played by the devilishly handsome Jacob Elordi, Felix is the big man on campus, with charisma to spare, money in the bank, and a Dad with a title.

He invites Olly to join his posh friendship group, some of whom welcome the newcomer with open arms, and others less keen on having this poor kid from a broken home amongst them. But Felix likes Oliver, which is all that matters. And when term ends, insists Olly come stay at the country pile which gives the film its title.

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Introducing Saltburn

Saltburn is a sprawling castle in the countryside, and when Felix takes him on a tour of the property, it’s dizzying – Shakespeare’s folios here, Henry VIII’s spunk there – the whole place is overwhelming.

Then it’s time to meet the parents. As Sir James Catton, Richard E. Grant is channelling Bertie Wooster. While as his trophy wife Elsbeth, Rosamund Pike plays a character maybe more monstrous than Gone Girl’s Amy. Though also very, very funny; her killer gag about the song ‘Common People’ one of the film’s best.

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The family pities their new play-thing, so let him pretend to be part of their tribe. And he takes to it like a duck to water, attending nightly black-tie dinners, playing tennis in that same tux while swigging champagne, and exploring Chekhov’s maze. Because of course the Catton’s have a maze.

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Fearless Barry Keoghan

Throughout these scenes, there’s a sexual tension between Oliver and Felix that’s palpable. And builds to a surprising – and shocking – explosion mid-way through proceedings. Which is when everything shifts, the focus of the film changes, and Saltburn begins to reveal what it’s really about. We won’t spoil the turn here, but it’s utterly fascinating how it plays out, mixing comedy and tragedy in hugely entertaining fashion.

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Much like Emerald Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman, power dynamics play a role in what happens. And the writer-director has fun toying with them through language, but also through the film’s visuals, the camera frequently gazing up at golden boy Felix. And looking down upon Oliver, as befits his status.

As Olly, Keoghan is fearless. There’s an otherworldly quality to the young actor, and something magnetic about his every glance and move. Which works a treat for Oliver Quick, who might be wrong-footing those around him, but at the same time might not.

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Saltburn review score: 5/5

Saltburn is about secrets and lies. Desire and deception. With violence, and sexual depravity thrown in for good measure. It also features a soundtrack to die for, making incredible use of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor. As well as a festive Cheeky Girls track.

On the surface, it seems to be about class. As we Brits will always be obsessed with class. But there’s also a thriller bubbling away beneath that surface, one that grips from when the film’s clever framing device kicks in, to the ultimately devastating denouement.

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It’s bravura stuff, which proves Promising Young Woman was no fluke, and that Emerald Fennell is one of the most exciting filmmaking talents to emerge in recent years. Here doing amazing things with one of our brightest stars.

Saltburn screened at Fantastic Fest. You can read more from the festival here, or via the below reviews:

Dream Scenario review | The Toxic Avenger review | The Fall of the House of Usher review | Pet Sematary: Bloodlines review | Suitable Flesh review | Your Lucky Day review | The Creator

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