A loner from the north of England arrives at Oxford University.
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is clearly an outsider when he arrives into the landscape of wealth and privilege and the mostly aristocratic types who spend less time studying and more time boozing and having sex.
Oliver is drawn to the utterly striking Felix (Australian actor Jacob Elordi) who is gorgeous and completely charismatic. Everyone loves him.
When Felix gets a flat tyre on his bike, Oliver is riding by and offers his as Felix is late to a tutorial. That night in the pub, Felix sees Oliver, ushers him over and introduces him to all the other bright young things.
The besotted Oliver latches on, and Felix seems perfectly fine with this.
One day, Oly turns up at Felix’s room to say his alcoholic father had had a fall and died, and his alcoholic mother could barely say anything to him on the phone. In a gesture of great magnanimity, Felix says you cannot go home, come with me to my digs, Saltburn.
And into the world of wealth and opulence we glide.
Saltburn is the name of Felix’s parents’ home, and it is a massive mansion with slightly sinister overtones.
At first, Oliver gets on well with the family and two semi-permanent guests. Lady Caton (Rosamund Pike) and her husband Sir James (Richard E Grant) run the household, where their daughter Venetia (Alison Oliver), Felix’s cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) and an almost unrecognisable Carey Mulligan, as Pamela, all live.
But all is not what it seems.
Lady Caton, or Elspeth, has a very wicked and dry wit, which can be both funny and scathing at the same time, and sometimes, I’m sure people think they are walking on eggshells around her.
The sister Venetia starts wearing almost nothing at night below Oliver’s window, which at first he finds perplexing but then intriguing, and a side story begins to unfold.
And Fairleigh keeps reminding Oliver he is working class, doesn’t belong there, and is a nobody.
All of this plays out for the first part of the film as something like a psychological drama. There are layers and mixed meanings in what the family members say, and it certainly appears Oliver is in over his head.
One day, Felix takes Oliver for a drive, as a surprise, during which we learn Felix is taking him to see his mother who had contacted the house. When they arrive, not only is his mother not a drunkard, but his father is still alive, and Oliver is not the only child he led Felix to believe.
That is about enough of the story I think I’ll leave you with.
The creative force behind this film is writer/director and actor (but not here) Emerald Ferrell, who likes to explore dark places and the dark people who inhabit them.
She was a showrunner for the second series of Killing Eve. She won the best screenplay Oscar for her debut film, Promising Young Woman, in which she starred opposite Mulligan, and she played Camilla Shand in the third and fourth series of The Crown.
When asked about this film, though, she says: “I suppose it is really dark. But then the things that I find dark are things that aren’t supposed to be dark at all. The things I find really dark are watching daytime television with people kind of combing over the disappearance of a child in a way that’s so salacious and then talking about cooking tips.”
And this is where she shines as a writer/director. In Saltburn, people will often gloss over the worst tragedies with the flick of cigarette ash (there’s a lot of smoking in this movie).
Barry Keoghan’s performance, you would have seen him as the doomed youth in The Banshees of Inesherin, is utterly compelling; Rosamund Pike is not as demonic as we first think, but it’s a role of great power and subtlety.
All the other performances, especially Elordi as Felix, are genuine and heartfelt.
But this is very dark, and how it unfolds is quite overwhelming.
Saltburn, which is also often desperately funny and, might I suggest, sits somewhere between The Talented Mr Ripley and Brideshead Revisited, gets four Grand Guignols out of five.
Saltburn is playing at cinemas across the country.