[Miami GEMS 2023] SALTBURN -- A Transcendent Performance From Barry Keoghan Elevates This Material From Average to Good
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Of late, there have been a few filmmakers who have come onto the scene like a firecracker. They break out with their first film, and everybody expects explosions again with their subsequent films. In the case of Emerald Fennell, an actor in her own right, she has done an adequate job in her sophomore outing in Saltburn, but not as great a job as she did in Promising Young Woman.
Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a young British man who has just started school at the prestigious Oxford University in London. He is trying to find his way around literally and figuratively. Inadvertently, one day he comes across a classmate in need of help. Felix (Jacob Elordi) has a flat tire on his bike and can't get to his class back on campus. Keoghan's character reluctantly gives up his bike to help this young strapping lad. This leads to a fast friendship between the two college-age boys, which isn't ideal for Elordi's cousin Farley (Archie Madekwe)
This has a very similar tone and feel to a movie I saw — and loved — from twenty-five or so years ago called The Talented Mr. Ripley. In that film, Matt Damon plays a young man who is enamored by the life of a popular young man in Italy named Dickie Greenleaf, played by Jude Law. The Keoghan character similarly admires the Elordi character in Saltburn, and the Madekwe character is very jealous of their friendship, also very similar to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in The Talented Mr. Ripley. They are both suspicious of the Keoghan character. This doesn't dissuade Elordi's character from inviting his new pet project to his home "Saltburn" for the summer, though, after the end-of-term exams.
Fennell crafts a film with a fascinating coming-of-age story with familiar themes. She puts the viewers in a front-row seat for this operatic film. There are many scenes of sensual behavior between Keoghan's character and Elordi's character, his alluring sister Venitia (Alison Oliver), and even Madekwe’s character. She creates a fever dream in many scenes. Scenes of various dinners, birthday parties, and so forth are filled with debauchery and drug/alcohol-fueled mayhem. These scenes are where all the real meat and potatoes of the story take place. You get to see how the various characters' motivations start to surface, and who's who in this cast.
Besides the characters I've mentioned, this film has four supporting characters that were very funny to me. Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, Carey Mulligan (in a lesser role, but working with Fennell again after her Oscar-nominated turn in Promising Young Woman), and Paul Rhys as Duncan the family butler. Pike and Grant are hilarious in these over-the-top parental roles of the Catton family. Pike gives a good performance as this nosy mother trying to needle Keoghan's character about everything in his life, and Grant is just a crazy old man, not knowing what's truly going on around him. Mulligan isn't in the film much, but she makes the most of her scenes. The real star here is Rhys as the butler. He gives a lot of snide remarks and wild looks to Keoghan's character, and he seems to be enjoying every minute he's on camera. He was a delight to watch in this sinister seeming role.
I'm always a fan of films about the haves and have-nots. The dichotomy of how different people from different walks of life interact in these types of films is fascinating to me. As one of the have-nots, I can relate to Keoghan's character to some extent. The film gives the viewers a twist, though, and things aren't exactly what they seem from the surface. Fennell, who also wrote the script, throws in a few monkey wrenches as the story weaves its way around the true nature of what's going on in this movie. She keeps the twists close to her vest, even though I kind of figured out what was going on pretty early in this story.
One particular aspect of the movie I wasn't that pleased with was the cinematography by popular cinematographer Linus Sandgren. There were many scenes at night or during darkly lit party sequences that were hard to see. The daytime scenes were fine, but once the film got to a lot of the night scenes, characters were in shadow and shaded quite often. I wished he could have lit these scenes better. The house — which is what the film is named after — is beautiful, and during the day you can see it in all its glory and beauty. This includes the grounds, which include a massive maze, which plays a key role in a major sequence toward the end of the film.
Keoghan is the real reason to watch this film. He goes to a place I never thought he had in him. He is mostly reserved, but sometimes creepy and weird. He has a few scenes at the end of the film that defy what acting is all about. I thought I knew who were the main players for the best actor Academy Award conversation, but now that is thrown all out of whack. Keoghan and Yakusho from Perfect Days have messed up my mindset regarding that. Keoghan is just that good in this role.
Saltburn, if anything, is a film I want to live in. The world that Fennell and company create is one I want to inhabit, even though there's a danger to being part of the sensual, beautiful existence. She creates fascinating characters vividly brought to life by this amazing cast. Big or small roles alike, everybody brings a different vibe, which all meld together for the better good in this film. Although the movie has similar themes as other movies, it stands on its own as an achievement in storytelling. I loved these richly written and acted characters. The look of the movie could have been a little better, but that is a minor quibble. Keoghan's performance is the true reason to see this coming-of-age thriller, though.
Saltburn screened at the 2023 Miami GEMS Film Festival, which runs November 2-5.