Saltburn (MA 15+, 131 minutes)
For someone hanging out for an invitation to stay with members of the English upper class on their country estates, this clever, queasy drama may give them pause. Equally, welcoming a stranger as a house guest may give their moneyed potential hosts pause too. The very idea vaguely implied by the title of salt rubbed into a wound is enough to have the rest of us reaching for a soothing balm or sidestepping any such invite in the first place.
Saltburn's writer-director and producer, Emerald Fennell, made a riveting black satire that appeared several years ago. That first film, Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan, revealed a penchant to reach for high dramatic stakes and carry a risky narrative idea through to its logical conclusion. Whether it is a riposte to the idea of male privilege being carried forward by a new generation of young male professionals who should know better, or a hypothetical about class envy and class warfare, Fennell will startle as she dares you to stay with her on the journey.
It is set at an unremarkable point in the recent present. It's 2006 when Oliver Quick, Irish actor Barry Keoghan in a terrific star turn, enters Oxford on a scholarship. His accent is Liverpudlian, immediately giving the game away to his posh college cohort. He is diligent and overly prepared for the coming term, but lacks style and panache so he is destined to make a dolt of himself among bright young things like Farleigh Start (Archie Madekwe) in the undergrad social scene. It just so happens he's in luck, however, when he connects with Felix Catton (Australian actor Jacob Elordi) who happens to be at the same college. Everything comes easily to tall, handsome Felix - friendship, romantic attachment and the universal admiration of his peers.
Felix is everything he isn't, and Oliver seems to be smitten. His new friend is generous and kind and moved by his story about his background. Oliver is an only child with parents who struggled with addiction and their mental health. Suddenly, Oliver takes a call from home. His Dad has died, after an accident while he was drunk. Felix soon invites him to stay over the summer with him and his family at their ancestral home, Saltburn. An imposing 14th-century pile in Northamptonshire was the main location for the shoot.
The moment that Oliver arrives at Saltburn for introductions to Felix's friends and eccentric family is delicious, not least because we get to meet Richard E. Grant, overacting as usual as the befuddled patriarch, Sir James Catton. From the moment that Felix's svelte mother Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) steps forward to take a closer look at her son's interesting new friend, the dynamic starts to emerge. Oliver has just become the latest new specimen to arrive from the world outside, the real world, a curiosity who might provide diverting entertainment.
Their most recent guest is on her way out the door. Pamela (Carey Mulligan as you've not seen her before), the complete limpet, has begun to outstay her welcome. Mulligan's gloomy manner and deadpan delivery as Pamela, and Pike's callous imperiousness as Elspeth, drifting around the estate like an actor in an invisible play, are pitch perfect.
During Oliver's tryst with Felix's sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), yet another character who is a compulsive smoker, it becomes clear that there is a lot more to our bumbling upstart than at first appeared the case. The invitation to sex was clear, but the uptake by Oliver so self-assured that the nerdy, awkward mask that he wears begins to slip, culminating in a road trip back home that reveals the extent of his sociopathy, that he hates who he is and where he comes from. That is, of course, the point - that being awe-struck by the privileged classes and their ways engenders those feelings of self-loathing too.
This new film from Fennell, a strange and twisted, though entertaining journey, doesn't land with the same zing as her first. Another film about a man who would do anything for a place in the sun, The Talented Mr Ripley, with Matt Damon in the title role of the sociopath, was also a tough watch despite its many qualities. Brideshead Revisited, also charting similar territory, offers nuance without the aftertaste.