Sex, power, class: This satire is Brideshead Revisited for the selfie age

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(MA) 127 minutes

Emerald Fennell, writer-director of Saltburn, has chalked up quite a resume in the past few years. She won an Oscar for her Promising Young Woman screenplay, a film she also directed. And she scored an Emmy nomination for her performance as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown, together with another two for her work as writer and showrunner on Killing Eve.

Barry Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a friendless Oxford scholarship boy, who becomes entangled with a fellow student’s family, in Saltburn.

It’s a diverse collection of achievements, but there is a common thread. They all centre on stories about sex, power, class or a conjunction of all three. Saltburn is her tilt at what she calls British country house gothic. It’s in the tradition of Brideshead Revisited, The Go-Between and Rebecca, but she’s updated the genre to 2006, the beginnings of the selfie age.

Saltburn is the Lincolnshire estate of the Cattons, an aristocratic family whose Bohemian pretensions do nothing to dilute their sense of entitlement. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is a friendless Oxford scholarship boy who spends a sunstruck summer in thrall to them. At Oxford, he’s taken up by Felix (Australian actor Jacob Elordi), the glamorous son of the house, and swept off to Saltburn to be initiated into the customs of a world where being boring rates as one of the deadly sins.

They are quite a crew. Felix is a narcissist whose benevolence has its limits. And Elspeth, the matriarch, is played by Rosamund Pike as a blonde beauty whose conversation only seems languidly inconsequential. Despite her blithe air and sunny expression, there’s usually a barb in there somewhere.

Rosamund Pike plays Elspeth, the matriarch at the centre of Saltburn.

And she’s funny. Pike first displayed her gift for comedy with Carey Mulligan in Lone Scherfig’s An Education – cast as a conman’s guileless girlfriend – and Mulligan has a minor role here, too. She’s a Catton houseguest, known to all as “Poor Dear Pamela”, and we catch up with her just as she’s started to outstay her welcome by ceasing to be amusing.

Oliver watches all this with a bashful, hangdog air, as if totally over-awed, but as the summer rolls on, he turns out to be more resilient than he looks. And a lot smarter. It comes as no surprise when Felix’s fragile sister, Venetia (Alison Oliver), allows herself to be seduced by him.

So far, the major influence would seem to be Brideshead. The house, a rambling gothic pile full of twisting corridors, painted ceilings and ancestral portraits, is presided over by Duncan (Paul Rhys), the butler, an unyielding presence who may well have been in the job since the dawn of time. And while the days are full of sunshine, the nights take on a sinister glitter, as if the house’s dark secrets have come out to play in the moonlight.

But the plot takes some completely unexpected turns and before long, we’ve left Waugh behind and landed in Patricia Highsmith country by way of Chekhov. It’s a dizzying ride and Fennell doesn’t quite bring it off. At one point, the satire takes an abrupt dip into the ludicrous and as the denouement approaches, things speed up so dramatically that the last part seems like a headlong race to the finish.

But it’s an extraordinary film entirely lacking the gentler aspects of the country house genre. It’s tough and sinewy and the sex is so closely interwoven with the urge to dominate and control that you feel by the end of it the entrails of the British class system have been laid bare and its evils, anachronisms and insularity mercilessly exposed to the light.

Saltburn is released in cinemas on November 16.

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