Film

Saltburn review – Barry Keoghan steals the show

Emerald Fennell's latest is great fun, with a wittily curated soundtrack and vivid period detail

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn.

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn. Image: PR supplied

Barry Keoghan is a singular screen presence. Perhaps you saw the Dublin-born actor in The Banshees of Inisherin as damaged village idiot Dominic, outshining the headline stars with a broken-hearted line reading so casually devastating – “Well, there goes that dream” – it became shorthand for the entire film. (He was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor and also won a Bafta.) 

Keoghan’s naturalistic deportment and distinctive features have also added unexpected depth to recent blockbusters like Dunkirk and superhero fantasy The Eternals. In 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer – another film where Keoghan starred opposite Farrell – he transformed the mundane act of eating spaghetti into something deeply ominous. 

So we know he can do magnificent work in the margins. What is Keoghan like as a lead? In the blackly comic class satire Saltburn – writer- director Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning debut Promising Young Woman – he is presented as a Promising Young Man.

The year is 2006 and Merseyside student Oliver Quick (Keoghan) is trying to fit in at his posh new Oxford college. If higher education offers a chance to reinvent yourself, it seems like the bespectacled Oliver is a dry run for Will from The Inbetweeners: studious, socially awkward and dressed like a square.  

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It doesn’t help that a rigid clique structure seems to be in place from the outset, with Tatler-ready rich boys like campus heartthrob Felix (Jacob Elordi) and elegant waster Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) at the top of the social hierarchy. With his dorky demeanour and impoverished background – there are hints of drink and drugs problems back home – Oliver seems destined to remain an outcast while everyone else embraces the hedonism of student life. 

When Oliver unexpectedly finds common ground with Felix and gains entry to the coolest peer group, it feels like a win for the underdog. Although the power dynamics are hopelessly lopsided – Felix seems to get a Common People frisson from hanging out with someone from “the north” but could drop his lower-class friend at any moment – their relationship survives the term. Oliver finds himself invited to his rich pal’s family pile: Saltburn. 

If Oliver has been walking a social tightrope at college, Saltburn is where things become even more precarious. The butler radiates hostility. Felix’s frightfully posh parents – played with gusto by Richard E Grant and Rosamund Pike – are vaguely curious about their son’s new friend but remain oblivious, self-involved and callously eccentric in the way that only the generationally wealthy can hope to get away with. 

Felix’s younger sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) sizes up the incomer with predatory interest; catty Farleigh is also in the family circle, and darkly hints that this is not the first time Felix has brought a stray home. The stage is set for a life-changing summer. But is Oliver just seeing how long he can survive among the aristocratic class before tumbling back to his proper station? Or does he have some grander plan?

Certainly, there is a homoerotic charge with the square-jawed Felix (the handsome Elordi’s next role is Elvis in Sofia Coppola’s upcoming biopic Priscilla).As the days stretch into weeks, it begins to feel like Call Me by Your Name or The Talented Mr Ripley against a National Trust background, with Oliver seemingly in over his head but hungry to adapt. 

Most films would kill for just one memorable scene that evokes a visceral reaction in an audience; Fennell casually throws in two that both put a new spin on “eat the rich”. One speaks to Oliver’s yearning for intimacy, and as he is alone in a bathroom, it feels like this might be his true self. The other – involving a nocturnal tryst in the grounds – shows how far he is prepared to go to neutralise anyone who might be a threat to his position.  

These extreme moments are indications that Saltburn will not be content with just being a spiky satire about the idle rich. The sprawling estate becomes a fierce psychological battleground. There are escalations, setbacks, rug-pulls and one hell of a Shakespeare-themed party. 

If you can tune into its slightly callous vibe, Saltburn is great fun, with a wittily curated soundtrack and vivid period detail. The final act may ring a little hollow, but it has nothing to do with its leading man, who seems to be relishing playing a wannabe shapeshifter who may never truly fit in. As the wild final scene demonstrates, Keoghan really puts it all out there.  

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic. Saltburn is in cinemas from 17 November.

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