12th February 2024

That the writer-director of Saltburn understands the machinations of the British aristocracy is clear from her name. 

There is a special, campy confidence in calling one’s first-born ‘Emerald’. Especially when one is a renowned jeweller. And Theo Fennell wasn’t done there. His family name, which would normally rhyme with ‘kennel’, brings some extra flair when pronounced à la française: ‘Fennell’ to rhyme with ‘Chanel’.

Emerald Fennell’s younger sister is Coco Fennell, lest the Gallic flourish be missed.

The writer-director of Saltburn is 38-years-old, looks like an English rose [“Who doesn’t want to be fuckable?” she asks, rhetorically], and sounds like a Duchess [educated at Oxford]. More consequentially, Emerald Fennell thinks like Machiavelli.

In Saltburn (2023) she has created a cinematic masterpiece – a hilarious piece of gothic kitsch that perfectly provokes, burning ripe, to the point of rotting. 

This essay is for those who have seen Saltburn, and those who plan not to see it. The remainder should apply to Amazon Prime.   


The movie opens with a lie, then doubles down with another. 

The first lie is in the mouth of our protagonist, the talented Mr. Oliver Quick. 

“I wasn’t in love with him”, he asserts of Felix, the love-interest who unilaterally names him Ollie.

There is something in the tone of his denial which we instantly doubt.  

The second lie lies in the accompanying music. As the movie’s title lands on screen, the rousing classical music rings out a famous chorus. 

Handel’s British coronation anthem, ‘Zadok the Priest’ tells the biblical story of Solomon’s crowning. The anointing of the new King occurrs with the help of his father’s [King David’s] most trusted envoy – the priest, Zadok.

“Zadok the priest!” the subtitles say. But the ears hear otherwise, if music is your thing. That choir is not singing “Zadok”. Rather, it is singing “Ollie”…

“Ollie the priest! And Nathan the prophet”, the movie declares, in 18th century choral splendour, “anointed Solomon king!”. 

Thus, is Ms Fennell’s stage set.

There will be a new king. But who will Ollie anoint?


The diminutive Oliver, portrayed masterfully by an inscrutable Barry Keoghan, skulks about the fresh pastures of Oxford University, a bookish misfit. He lacks the wealth, cool and draping-beauty of the social elites of his class.

Oliver knows no one, and looks like nobody. 

This is decidedly not his Oxford dream, and it comes time for Mr Quick to effect change.

Felix Catton is his chosen vector – a fellow-student of noble birth, vast wealth and outrageous, charismatic beauty. 

Ollie be nimble, Ollie be quick. Ollie jump over the candle-stick.

It takes us some time to understand that we may be familiar with this story. Oliver is a 21st Century riff on Tom Ripley. Patricia Highsmith created her antihero through five books (1955-1991), a young man aching to possess that which is not his. Ripley demanded someone else’s money; someone else’s lover; someone else’s identity. 

Tom Ripley’s gift was improvisation, and its ripples destroyed worlds. The much lamented Anthony Minghella brought his story to the screen in 1999 to great effect, with Damon, Law and Paltrow in the principal roles. 

But Mr Quick, we discover, has a different modus operandi to Ripley. He is a man of slow and careful plotting. 

With cat-like thread, upon our prey we steal…


Saltburn is the English country-house seat of Felix’s family, packed full of riches, Reubens and repression. 

It is cloyingly hot during that summer of 2007, when Oliver becomes the Cattons’ seasonal guest. 

Felix, a man used to winning and discarding, is named after Luck itself. He, along with sister, cousin, father and mother, is about to enter a maze of luckless horror beyond their brittle comprehension. 

Australian actor Jacob Elordi is the Jude Law of his generation. His Felix is all elegant-affability, dressed in crumpled see-through linen, with tussled hair, and an air of studied ennui, once things go his way.

Alas, laying down boundaries will cost him his life.

Everyone is in love with Felix, including, presumably, his cousin whom he “accidentally fingered” in a cubbyhole under the red staircase. 

Critical reaction has delighted in framing Saltburn as a movie motivated by sexual perversion. In that faux-scandalous way of journalism, it has been simultaneously feted and decried. Three moments of sexual transgression, each initiated by Oliver, are written about, over and over, in reviews.

Emerald is such a hussy for ‘going there’, the critics scream. La Fennell is too charnelle.

But the handwringing is hollow. It’s as if the lyrics of American rap had gone fully unheard, the internet fully un-searched, and our secret lives fully unexamined…

In truth, Saltburn is a movie of subversion, not perversion. It is about the marauding power of agency in the face of self-satisfied torpor.

Oliver Quick uses sexuality not to express lust or love, but as a weapon of war. Indeed, the bespectacled quasi-eunuch from the beginning of term pillages every member of the Catton family in the end. It takes him 17 years and it is a gothic, crazy ride…


Ms Fennell takes great care in clarifying the procedural aspect of her story: the choices Ollie made to allow a new King of Saltburn be anointed. Many quibble with her lean into exposition during the closing minutes. Perhaps me too. 

But she leaves the central questions gloriously unanswered. 

Was the war worth it? Can a Kingdom compensate for killed love?   

Mined to its core, Saltburn is a gem.


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