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Review | ‘Saltburn’ seduces with every frame, but leaves you wanting more

(2 stars)

The kinks and cosseted pleasures of the upper classes are on lurid display in “Saltburn,” Emerald Fennell’s aristo-gothic sexual thriller set amid England’s toniest precincts, from Oxford to the titular estate. The rich aren’t like you, me or any other recognizable human being in this story that adds equal parts F. Scott Fitzgerald, Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier to the martini shaker and gives it a good tumble. If Fennell doesn’t quite stick the landing — if her story of striving, sexual obsession, class resentment and revenge ultimately feels puny and predictable — she certainly has fun getting there.

And the audience has a good time as well. As “Saltburn” opens, young Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is just arriving at Oxford, where he’s a shy, working-class fish out of water. He immediately identifies the alpha on campus: Felix (Jacob Elordi), a tall, handsome upperclassman who moves through life with the careless ease of oblivious entitlement. When a campus meet-cute results in Felix taking Oliver under his wing, “Brideshead Revisited” fans will instantly recognize an exercise in Charles-Sebastian redux; Fennell herself acknowledges the debt when it’s revealed that “Brideshead” author Evelyn Waugh based one of his characters on Felix’s family.

Filmed in a squared-off format that recalls films of a vanished age, “Saltburn” vividly captures the constantly shifting status tectonics of college life, where so much can depend on wearing the right sweater or ordering the right drink. The social hierarchies at Oxford are portrayed as particularly vicious, especially when Oliver has the nerve to take his studies seriously. His social and academic nemesis, a snooty American kid named Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), scoffs when he discovers that Oliver has read all 50 books on the summer reading list, up to and including the King James Bible. There’s little worse in this community of the louche and larky privileged than being a try-hard.

It’s Felix who stands out in the group, due to not just his preternatural good looks and self-confidence, but his kindness. He sympathizes with Oliver and brings him to the family pile, called Saltburn, for summer holidays. “I think I like you more than last year’s one,” Felix’s sister India (Millie Kent) tells Oliver, the faint aroma of menace perfuming the air. The foreboding will be paid off in full as the story gets weirder — even if viewers have long since sussed out what’s really happening under the alternately perverse and placid surface.

The fact that “Saltburn” is so obvious — not to mention that it has so little of real substance to say — is almost ameliorated by the sheer style of its filmmaking: Fennell, working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer Suzie Davies, creates a deliriously decadent world of inherited wealth, from the “dead rellies” on Saltburn’s walls to the Shakespeare folio Felix offhandedly points out to Oliver on the house tour. She seduces us with nearly every frame, raising the aesthetic stakes with each cocktail, karaoke session, hung-over breakfast and — in the film’s most notorious scene — bizarre bathroom ritual of aspiration and communion.

“Saltburn” isn’t nearly as perceptive as “Promising Young Woman,” Fennell’s astonishing 2020 debut; that film’s star, Carey Mulligan, is on hand here in an amusing cameo as the blowzy bestie of Felix’s mother, Elspeth, played by Rosamund Pike in a note-perfect performance of a glamorous dimwit reminiscent of her similarly spot-on turn in “An Education.” Indeed, as long as Pike is on-screen in “Saltburn” — especially when she’s paired with Richard E. Grant as Elspeth’s dotty husband, James — the film manages to be laugh-out-loud funny. (Paul Rhys, as the Mrs. Danvers-like family retainer Duncan, elicits some smiles as well.) Soon enough, though, the limitations of Fennell’s script become obstacles even Pike’s and Grant’s comedic instincts can’t overcome.

Elordi, recently seen doing a surprisingly good iteration of Elvis Presley in “Priscilla,” here gets to stretch out and prove why he’s such a sought-after actor: He’s handsome, sure, but he exudes thoughtfulness and charisma that transcend mere good looks. For his part, Keoghan delivers what can only be described as an impressively committed performance in a movie that, in the end, considers itself way more shocking than it really is. Nowhere is this truer than “Saltburn’s” final scene, a bravura tracking shot of a body flinging itself through space that’s simultaneously beautiful and utterly empty. That’s probably the point, but Fennell has set us up to want much more.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong sexual elements, graphic nudity, coarse language throughout, some disturbing violence and drug use. 127 minutes.

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