Emerald Fennell’s exuberant satire on class and privilege, Saltburn, opened last month’s London Film Festival and certainly got the event off to a rollicking start.
It is an intriguing, flawed, at times wildly enjoyable follow-up to her acclaimed 2020 debut Promising Young Woman.
This one is about a promising young man. Barry Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a lad from an apparently deprived background on Merseyside who arrives at Oxford University feeling, both socially and academically, like a fish out of water.
He is befriended on day one by a peculiar maths prodigy and his first week becomes an exercise in shaking this weirdo off, a situation with which anyone who has been an undergraduate anywhere will surely relate (though I suppose some of us might have been the weirdos). Anyway, it’s very funny.
Fortunately for him, Oliver manages to burrow his way into the affections of another first-year student, the dishy, popular, wealthy Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), with whom he soon becomes infatuated.
Barry Keoghan plays Oliver Quick, a lad from an apparently deprived background on Merseyside who arrives at Oxford University feeling, both socially and academically, like a fish out of water
Felix’s chums don’t all welcome this lower-class interloper into their circle; his cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) is especially hostile. But, guileless and generous, Felix invites Oliver home for the holidays to the extravagant family pile, Saltburn, where his parents Sir James (Richard E. Grant), Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) wallow with hilarious complacency in aristocratic splendour.
Grant is a limited actor but when he gets a role that plays to his strengths he rises gloriously to the occasion. So it is here, though it is Pike who steals the show, with cherishable support from Carey Mulligan as ‘poor dear’ Pamela, a family friend who has rather outstayed her welcome at Saltburn. ‘Darling, where’s Liverpool,’ Lady Elspeth chirrups at one point, capturing to perfection the kind of clueless, posh, entitled but entirely charming woman of a certain age and breed who might be chatelaine of a house such as this.
The writer and director, by her own cheerful admission, used her gilded upbringing as the daughter of ‘society jeweller’ Theo Fennell to inform the screenplay.
As a fine actress too, she clearly didn’t have to dig particularly deep to play the young Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. So, supervised by Paul Rhys as a fabulously snooty butler, this is the rarefied world into which Oliver is plunged, in what until now has been a broad comedy of manners, Brideshead Revisited with gags.
Felix invites Oliver home for the holidays to the extravagant family pile, Saltburn, where his parents Sir James (Richard E. Grant), Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) (pictured) wallow with hilarious complacency in aristocratic splendour
But I hope it doesn’t count as a spoiler to say that the second half of the film owes much more to The Talented Mr Ripley as Oliver gets his feet under the handsome mahogany table, and the story takes a jolting lurch into something different, becoming a dark psychosexual thriller. I was a bit uneasy with this shift in tone, and had a few more specific gripes, not least Keoghan’s ‘Merseyside’ accent, which distractingly flits back and forth across the Irish Sea. Also, marvellous actor though he is, he’s 31; it’s a stretch to believe in him as a newly arrived Oxford undergrad.
But none of that means you shouldn’t see Saltburn. At its funniest it’s a proper hoot, and at its darkest, it’s still strangely compelling.
There are dark, psychosexual undertones too in the excellent May December, which is loosely inspired by the true story of a Californian woman called Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who began a relationship with a pupil when she was 34 and he was only 12, gave birth to his child, went to prison as a sex offender, and later married him.
In Todd Haynes’ film, that squalid backstory is somewhat sanitised. Julianne Moore plays Gracie, now married to the much younger Joe (Charles Melton), who was at least a teenager when the affair first began.
With the scandal almost a quarter of a century behind them, and the couple’s enduring relationship seemingly rock-solid, an actress arrives at their home to interview Gracie and study her mannerisms, ahead of playing her on screen.
Julianne Moore, left, and Natalie Portman in a scene from May December
This is Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), whose presence little by little begins to expose Gracie’s human frailties as well as the fissures in the marriage. Nor is Elizabeth as entirely straightforward as she at first seems.
Moore and Portman are both tremendous in this film, while Melton is never eclipsed by two such illustrious Hollywood heavyweights.
But the laurels also belong to Haynes, whose 2015 film Carol was another impeccably observed story of emotional tumult below a serene surface, and to screenwriter Samy Burch. They and the terrific cast have given us a psychological drama of genuine heft.
Driving Madeleine is a sweet French-language film about a Parisian taxi driver, Charles (Dany Boon), assailed by money worries, despatched to pick up a lively 92-year-old woman, Madeleine (Line Renaud), on the day she moves out of her house.
She wants him to drive her around the city looking at her old haunts before she grudgingly takes up residence at an old folks’ home, and the pair bond over the course of the long, meandering, sometimes eventful journey. It could all be a bit saccharine except Madeleine’s back story includes a 13-year jail sentence for disfiguring an abusive partner, some of which we see in flashback, as well as another terrible tragedy.
The acting is delightful, the Paris landmarks evocative, the writing at times a bit clunky, but on the whole, Christian Carion’s film is a pleasure. And those who look at cabaret star Renaud and think she can’t possibly be 92, you’re right. She’s 95.