Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir-scr Emerald Fennell
prd Tom Ackerley, Emerald Fennell, Josey McNamara, Margot Robbie
with Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, Rosamund Pike, Richard E Grant, Archie Madekwe, Carey Mulligan, Alison Oliver, Paul Rhys, Reece Shearsmith, Richard Cotterell, Lolly Adefope, Sadie Soverall
release US/UK 17.Nov.23
23/UK MGM 2h07

pike grant mulligan
london film fest

Is it streaming?

oliver, elordi and keoghan
With a story that echoes The Talented Mr Ripley, Emerald Fennell dives into the dark side of Britain's class structure. Wonderfully heightened, the film's deranged vibe is instantly gripping. Vicious swipes are delivered with backhanded relish by an excellent cast in stiff-upper-lip mode. Where the story goes is vivid and unnerving, simply because the storytelling is so full-on. We may have seen it before, but never quite like this.
Enrolling at Oxford, loner Oliver (Keoghan) immediately notices the super-cool Felix (Elordi) and sets out to become his friend. So now Oliver is hanging out with the hot crowd. Felix's best friend Farleigh (Madekwe) is suspicious of Oliver's motives, especially when Felix invites Oliver to stay for the summer at his family's enormous stately home Saltburn. As Oliver obsesses secretly over Felix's every move, Felix's parents (Pike and Grant) and family friend Pamela (Mulligan) welcome him. Then a transgressive encounter with Felix's sister Venetia (Oliver) puts Oliver's stay in peril. As do clashes with Farleigh.
Oliver seduces each person in a bespoke way, adding twisted spins to a familiar premise. Darkly provocative issues of consent and blurred sexuality abound, but Fennell seems less interested in shocking the audience than in making us complicit. No one in this story is particularly likeable, as each presents a false front to obscure their true feelings. So perhaps the frightfully posh duplicitousness is the most honest behaviour on-screen, chirpy and friendly in public but loathsome in private.

The actors reveal layers with razor-sharp nuance that offers insight into the characters' personalities. Keoghan's Oliver has a needy edge that invites sympathy, even when it's clear that he has sinister thoughts. This is a terrific role, rippling with insinuation, underlying vulnerability and full-bodied intensity. Elordi is excellent as the loose-limbed Felix, a nice guy who's oblivious about the real world. Madekwe is riveting in a complex role as Felix's bro, wary and even perhaps dangerous when cornered. And Pike steals the show with high airs and lacerating zingers.

Where the plot goes may not be particularly surprising, but it carries a strong wallop simply because everybody on the screen behaves in such tightly controlled ways. Several scenes send chills down the spine simply because it seems that ice runs through these privileged people's veins. If Oliver's overall plot perhaps feels a little simplistic, it carries a strong kick in its observations about the dangerous flaws of England's ruling class. And it ends on a note of staggeringly empty joy.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 4.Oct.23 lff

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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall