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Directed by Emerald Fennell
Produced by Margot Robbie, Emerald Fennell, and Josey McNamara
Written by Emerald Fennell
With: Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Alison Oliver, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Paul Rhys, Lolly Adefope, Ewan Mitchell, Sadie Soverall, Millie Kent, and Reece Shearsmith
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Editing: Victoria Boydell
Music: Anthony B. Willis
Runtime: 127 min
Release Date: 17 November 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.33 : 1
Color: Color

The second feature from actor-turned-writer/director Emerald Fennell, whose debut film Promising Young Woman was a solid exploitation picture that the Academy confused with a prestige message movie, stars Barry Keoghan in his first role since his BAFTA-winning supporting turn in The Banshees of Inisherin (2022). Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a young student struggling to find his identity among the elites at Oxford University. He's drawn into the orbit of the charming, attractive, and popular Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), who invites him to spend the summer at Saltburn, his aristocratic family's country estate.

Keoghan and Elordi's understated performances effectively counter the more eccentric and amusing turns by Rosamund Pike as Felix's mother, Alison Oliver as Felix's sister, and Carey Mulligan as an unfortunate family friend. Richard E. Grant is surprisingly (and effectively) toned down here, playing Felix's father, the Lord of Saltburn. Fennell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Babylon, Battle of the Sexes, American Hustle) shoot the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Many young filmmakers have been playing with this format as a gimmick in recent years, but in this picture, the squarish frame is used to far greater effect than the mere equivalent of an Instagram film. The Academy ratio seems to encourage the Saltburn filmmakers to put actual thought into their lighting and compositions, which should be applauded as it's becoming increasingly rare.

Unfortunately, as a screenwriter, Fennell has no idea how to end a movie. The promise of Promising Young Woman was severely undercut by the "cop-out" of its hotly debated conclusion. Perhaps on her third try, she'll get it right, but in the case of Saltburn, the ending utterly undoes the movie. This picture builds to a nice Highsmithian climax, complete with the potential of a wonderfully sinister final shot—a sly close-up on a character's face barely able to contain his reaction to what he's reading in a newspaper would have been pretty damn satisfying. Unfortunately, this writer/director lacks faith in her audience, so she spells everything out and attempts to mesmerize us with a startling dance number. I'd say an unexpected, startling dance number, but these sequences are already beginning to feel like an A24 cliche (Saltburn is not an A24 release, but it sure feels like one). In the final moments of her film, Fennell practically begs the viewer to question and critique every beat, turn, and choice in the picture. It's astounding for a filmmaker to spend the last several minutes of their movie taking us back through their story to point out the flaws in their storytelling! Logic gaps, narrative inconsistencies, and missing scenes we might not have realized were necessary, all get exposed, not to deconstruct the film's genre but in an attempt to show us how clever the movie is. The endeavor backfires spectacularly. It's a colossal mistake.

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Emerald Fennell's sophomore effort is an elegantly photographed work with a fine collection of performances, utterly undone by an ending in which the filmmaker invites the audience to go back and examine every major and minor flaw in the storytelling.