Fennell brings another dark tale to life in 'Saltburn'

The writer/director of Promising Young Woman is back with another black comedy set to drop on Prime Video.
Saltburn drops on Prime Video beginning December 22.
Saltburn drops on Prime Video beginning December 22. /

Back in 2020, it was a crazy time for the world. That was true of the movies as well. A number of films were pulled or had unconventional releases. In the midst of that, Emerald Fennell released her first feature film as a writer/director.

That film, Promising Young Woman, crackled. Carey Mulligan led the cast, but it was the script and the construction of the story—which featured a dark twist—that made it memorable. Now, four years later, Fennell is back with another twisted tale in Saltburn. Her latest film debuted in theaters in November and streams on Prime Video beginning December 22.

This new film begins in 2006 at Oxford, where Oliver (Barry Keoghan) is something of a loner and a scholarship student. He struggles to make connections. When he forms a friendship with the popular, and wealthy Felix (Jacob Elordi), things begin to change, and Oliver’s world begins to open.

Coming into a school break, Felix invites Oliver to spend the time at his family’s estate, Saltburn. There, Oliver meets Felix’s parents, Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant), and his sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver). But is there more to Oliver than meets the eye?

Felix’s cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) certainly thinks so, and soon the two clash. But who will come out on top in this battle of wills?

Is Saltburn worth checking out?

Fennell won the Academy Award for her script in Promising Young Woman. The dialogue made it crackle and there was a dark sense of humor throughout the story. Those same traits could be applied to Saltburn as well. There’s an acerbic style to the comedy and situations that are engaging. This is also a dark story, in many ways darker than her previous film. It’s got some unexpected sequences and some difficult material.

What helps make it work are strong performances. In particular, I enjoyed Pike and Keoghan. Pike slides effortlessly into this role, playing off all the other characters in the film. Mulligan makes a cameo in this film, and her back-and-forth with Pike is fun. So, too, is the back-and-forth between Pike and Keoghan.

For a film like this to work, you need to invest in the lead character, no matter what. There are plenty of challenges to Oliver and to figuring him out, especially as the story dives further forward. And yet, Keoghan is so magnetic in the role you’re drawn to what he’s doing even when it feels overly dark. He carries a bulk of the narrative and offers a daring performance, especially in a few sequences in the third act of the film.

Overall, fans of Fennell’s style will appreciate this follow up. It’s not a conventional or easy story to watch, but the craft here is strong. The look of the film, the cinematography and the way the story flows help it coalesce into something unique and engaging.

Saltburn is rated R and is now playing in limited release. It streams on Prime Video on December 22.

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