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Movie Review: Emerald Fennell chronicles a promising young man in audacious, shock-filled ‘Saltburn’

Two years ago Emerald Fennell stood on the Oscars stage hoisting her writing trophy for “Promising Young Woman,” a scathing look at rape culture and a balancing act of wit, style, shock value, audacity, great acting and pitch-black humor — plus a tim
This image released by Amazon Prime Video shows Richard E. Grant in a scene from "Saltburn." (Amazon Prime Video via AP)

Two years ago Emerald Fennell stood on the Oscars stage hoisting her writing trophy for “Promising Young Woman,” a scathing look at rape culture and a balancing act of wit, style, shock value, audacity, great acting and pitch-black humor — plus a timely #MeToo message.

That’s a lot for a debut film, and we didn't even mention the best director nomination. Not surprisingly, anticipation has been hot for the writer-director’s next effort (as an actor, she’s already graced a little film this year called “Barbie,” in the suitably dark role of pregnant, discontinued Midge).

Now “Saltburn” is here, and the results are enticing but decidedly mixed — perhaps because Fennell seems to be trying to one-up herself by leaning on the shock value, at the eventual expense of other storytelling elements.

Make no mistake, the clever writing is here, as is the style, the sleek technique, and some terrific performances (Rosamund Pike is especially delicious in a supporting role). What’s missing, or muddled, is the message — and perhaps even more, the heart. After two hours of cringing and gasping in both awe and discomfort, we’re left admiring the “how” of what she’s doing but still figuring out the “why.”

One thing that’s not lacking: beauty. Unsurprisingly, Fennell excels at lush production values, especially in presenting the imposing, seductive and somewhat debauched Saltburn — no, not a person, but a country manor! This is England, and a story of class dynamics, so it’s surely fitting that the star be a piece of real estate. (And let’s just say, the phrase “real estate porn” takes on an added dimension here.)

We start, though, at Oxford. Here we meet our main character, Oliver Quick (and if that doesn’t take you straight back to Dickens, nothing will). It’s 2006, and Oliver (Barry Keoghan, ever-watchable and unpredictable) is a freshman on scholarship, feeling out of his league. At his first tutorial, he announces he read all 50 books on the summer reading list. His bemused teacher tells him nobody does that.

Oliver soon learns that life at Oxford isn’t about what you’ve read, but who you know. In the Hogwarts-style dining hall, he can barely find someone to sit with — only a needy mathematics major. He has no earthly connection to the rest of the privileged, entitled (and in some cases, titled) student body, but aches to fit in.

And then aristocratic golden boy Felix appears, like a Greek god. Played by Jacob Elordi, currently appearing as Elvis in “Priscilla,” Felix is gorgeous and effortlessly rakish; he seems to have never encountered hardship. Unless you count a flat tire on his bike, which is how Oliver meets him, lending his own bike so Felix can get to class.

The two become friends. It’s obvious what’s in it for Oliver, but what’s in it for Felix? That’s less clear, but Oliver’s home life has been hard. So, when Oliver tells Felix a tragedy has occurred involving his drug-addicted parents, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his family palace, er, home.

The family includes Felix’s beautiful but unstable sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), his comically out-of-touch father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant, very funny), and the terrifically droll Pike as Elspeth, Felix’s glamorous, clueless mother. Also spending the summer is cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe, excellent) a Saltburn outsider himself — American-born, a person of color — but compared to Oliver an insider, which is crucial. The great Carey Mulligan, Oscar-nominated for “Promising Young Woman,” has a welcome cameo as an unwelcome guest.

The early Saltburn days are intoxicating. Felix points out the various Rubens portraits, the original Shakespeare folios, that sort of thing. Days are spent lounging languidly on the lawn by the mossy pond. Dinner is black tie, so Oliver needs a loaner jacket and cufflinks. These people even play tennis in tuxes.

Then the really crazy stuff starts happening.

And we mean Fennell-level crazy. In “Promising Young Woman” there was a slow burn to the shocking, graphic ending. Here, the shocks come early. A few involve bodily fluids. Fennell knows how to startle the most jaded of film audiences — guests at the screening I attended either gasped or giggled in embarrassment.

Fennell is also comfortable with the world she seeks to paint. Even if you didn’t know beforehand, it’s pretty clear from the vividly rendered Oxford scenes that the director attended Oxford herself, and her scenes of student life at that storied institution, seen through outsider Oliver, form the most authentic-feeling part of the film.

But how long will Oliver remain an outsider? Will this uncertain and complicated young man, who arrives at the Saltburn gates too early and too naive to have waited for the footmen to collect him at the station, ever fit in, something he covets above all else? That’s the question the rest of the movie answers, taking increasingly sinister twists and turns.

As if in a garden maze, perhaps? Like any self-respecting, spectacular period mansion, Saltburn has one of those, too, where some key action takes place. More broadly, though, the maze seems to symbolize the effect of this film: pretty, seductive, challenging, forbidding and ultimately confounding.

“Saltburn,” an Amazon/MGM Studios release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association “for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, some disturbing violent content, and drug use.” Running time: 127 minutes. Two stars out of four.

Jocelyn Noveck, The Associated Press