"She's a complete limpet. The wettest of wet blankets. And so hard to know from looking at her, because she's so stylish! You'd think she was a riot, but there's absolutely nothing going on underneath."
--Lady Elspeth

"Lots of people get lost in Saltburn."

Imagine The Talented Mr. Ripley meets Brideshead Revisited, if one of the characters turned out to be a Bond villain, directed by the upper-class British lovechild of Stanley Kubrick and John Waters.1 Brilliantly filmed and acted: the cast perform their appointed roles perfectly (even if Barry Keoghan is a decade too old for his part), and the cinematography often breathtaking in its cleverness. The dialogue, oft-quoted online, features a number of dark, cool, and very funny lines-- lovely and dry.

I have trouble with the internally problematic script-- especially the final act. The discussion last year (which I tried to avoid until now), focused heavily on a handful of self-consciously transgressive scenes. Not all of these have a compelling reason to exist-- other than to be transgressive. As Lady Elspeth says of an acquaintance's suicide, "she'll do anything for attention." However, be warned that some of these scenes will be discussed in this review. Saltburn has more triggers than Roy Rogers.

It's also impossible to discuss it for long without spoilers.

Short version: probably worth watching if you have a tolerance for transgressive scenes and upper class twits, but keep your expectations in check. Some viewers thought this was the best thing since Citizen Kane, while others savaged it. Your opinion may well be at variance with mine.

If you read further, expect spoilers. Serious spoilers. Spoilers which actually spoil things. The further you read, the more spoilery this review becomes.

Still there?

Okay. Let's roll.

Poor working-class scholarship kid Oliver Quick fails to fit in at Oxford in the early 2000s. He's saddled with wealthy American-Brit upper-class twit Farleigh(Archie Madekwe), who instantly dislikes him, and Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell), seriously maladjusted scholarship kid who wants to be his buddy. Ollie has his sights set higher.

Much higher.

A chance encounter with Big Man on Campus Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi) gives him the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the cool kids, Felix's group of crazy rich hipster friends. Felix really likes him or, at least, sees him as a fun project. Ollie opens up about his background: general poverty, an estranged drug addict mother, and a deceased father.

The school year ends and the film leaves its campus comedy/drama phase behind. Felix invites Ollie to spend the summer at the titular manor house, where we're treated to satire of upper-class absurdities and opulence. He meets patriarch Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant) and hilarious, frivolous Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike), Felix's unstable sister, Venetia (Allison Oliver), and Duncan (Paul Rhys), the most intimidating butler since Karloff lurched into The Old Dark House. Also present are Lady Elpeth's bohemian friend Poor Dear Pamela (Carey Mulligan) and Farleigh, who is Felix's cousin. It's a darkly entertaining family portrait, but (for those most part) these upper-class twits prove more clueless than cruel. What tour of a great house would be complete without lines like, "I accidentally fingered my cousin over there" and "the bed still has some of Henry VIII's spunk on it"?

A lot happens that summer, including Ollie's growing obsession with Felix. At one point he peeps on Felix masturbating in the bath and then sneaks in and drinks the result. He also sexually engages Venetia and ingratiates himself entirely with Lady Elspeth. Farleigh, meanwhile, tries to undercut him in various ways. Farleigh soon gets removed from the premises, supposedly due to his own stupid, criminal behaviour. The circumstances are decidedly cuckoo, however, and we immediately suspect a set-up.

The family then decides to throw an over-the-top party for Ollie's birthday.

Unfortunately, Felix decides to reconcile Ollie with his estranged mother and takes him on a surprise road trip. Ollie begs him to turn around when he realizes where they're going. Both of his parents remain alive and well, he has two sisters he's never mentioned, and the family is comfortably upper middle-class. Felix says that he will keep Ollie's secrets, but Ollie must leave after the party.

At the party, Felix dies of an overdose. Farleigh, recently re-invited to Saltburn, catches blame for providing the drugs and, while the Cattons protect him from the law, he gets permanently banned.

The film, once hazy and hallucinogenic, now turns to a sharp, harshly-lit focus.

A short time later, Venetia commits suicide.

Sir James, disturbed by Ollie's hold on Lady Elspeth, pays him to leave forever.

Fifteen years later, the widowed Lady has a chance encounter with Ollie and invites him back. She soon takes ill and, on her deathbed, Ollie recounts the truth: he has orchestrated everything, apparently, from his initial chance encounter with Felix to her Ladyship's impending death-- conveniently, after she has made Ollie her heir.

Gosh, what a twist, right? Every viewer has by now suspected that something like this was happening, but Ollie's brilliant plotting makes only partial sense. Venetia's suicide, for example, requires a perfect reading of human psychology that beggars belief. I see how Ollie's actions might have had this result, but, like too many other events in the plot, it was by no means a certain outcome. Ollie manages more improbable manipulations than an Alex Jones conspiracy. The new context also renders some early scenes pointless. Of course, Ollie may still be lying (at least partially) to Lady Elspeth, who possibly cannot even hear him at this point. If writer/director Emerald Fennell intended that reading, it would have made more sense to have the film end with Elspeth's death, and dispensed with the "this is what really happened" flashbacks. The viewers could then piece together what we thought actually happened. The ending we see both treats the viewers as morons and defies credibility.

What we have is a film that remains viewable for many audiences-- I did not feel that it wasted my time-- but it amounts to far less than the sum of its parts.

1. Writer/director and actual upper-class Brit Emerald Fennell downplays various comparisons, including the ones that sprang to my mind and (it turns out) a zillion other people's, and identifies her principal influence as L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between. I have neither read the novel nor watched the film adaptation, so I cannot comment on that.

(I did have a cassette of their greatest hits at one point).