Billed as another eat-the-rich movie, Saltburn turns out to be the opposite: a film about the British middle class’s nostalgia for the aristocracy and its desperate desire to take their place.
Barry Keoghan in Saltburn. (MGM, 2023)
Now that the dust has settled on Emerald Fennell’s gothic class thriller, Saltburn, the consensus seems more or less unanimous: the film’s indulgent style comes at the expense of its subject, inspiring more memes than critical acclaim. In the wake of its release in November, wealthy TikTok users took to recreating its final scene, dancing through their own mansions to the sound of Sophie Ellis Bextor’s 2001 pop hit “Murder on the Dance Floor” (which was propelled back into the UK dance charts, hitting number two in the second week of January). As one critic wrote in a Guardian review of the film, “I never wanted to go to an Oxbridge college until I saw Saltburn. [Fennell] makes both Oxford and wealth look ridiculously, fabulously fun.” Superficially, Saltburn appears to mark another entry in the ever-growing class of eat-the-rich films — grisly tales of the downfalls of the grotesquely wealthy. But in reality, it leaves its viewers wanting to emulate the cannibalized.
The eat-the-rich genre is tailor-made to our particular economic moment, when, for the first time in twenty-five years, extreme wealth and extreme poverty have increased in tandem, leaving the richest 1 percent with nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020, according to a 2023 Oxfam report. Films like Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness or Mark Mylod’s The Menu successfully lampoon this new class of international robber barons, like the elderly British couple aboard Östlund’s cruise ship, who get blown up by the same grenades they’ve been peddling to war-torn countries for billions. But Saltburn, unlike Triangle of Sadness or The Menu, aims it sights at an older class enemy: the British aristocracy.
Oliver Quick (played by Barry Keoghan) arrives at Oxford on a scholarship, his home circumstances dire and his social status no better. He falls for the beautiful Felix Catton, who befriends him, pities him, treats him as a curiosity from the “real” world, and invites him to spend the summer at his family home, Saltburn (really Drayton House, a largely sixteenth-century English mansion, affectionately described by Horace Walpole, pioneer of the gothic novel, as “a most venerable heap of ugliness, with many curious bits”). Over the course of his sultry summer stay, Oliver’s obsession with the Cattons intensifies — with fatal consequences for every member of the family.
Clearly, and quite self-consciously, Fennell wanted to remake Brideshead Revisited, but the combination doesn’t quite work: foppish lords and ladies, who appear to have absentmindedly wandered off the pages of a 1940s novel in their smoking jackets, don’t make for a convincing enemy in 2024, because in real life they’re outnumbered, in headcount as well as net worth. The international superrich are the real ruling class of modern societies. By reviving Britain’s upper classes in this quaint, literary-historical mode, Saltburn offers a version of the aristocracy that is altogether too charming for class satire to land any punches — but it does reveal something about the country’s middle-class mindset in the twenty-first century.
In the film’s most unexpected twist, Felix drives Oliver to Liverpool to visit his drug-addled, recently widowed mother on his birthday. Only Oliver’s mother turns out not be as destitute as he’s let on, nor is his father as dead — mum is baking a cake and dad is tending to the garden. In the beige living room of their prim and proper semidetached home, Oliver’s parents behave deferentially to their university-educated son and his posh friend. The home and its inhabitants are as conventionally middle class as one could imagine.
This is the pivot upon which the film turns: Oliver has to be middle class — and not, as he’s led Felix (and us) to believe, working class – for his murderous love of the Cattons to make sense. With his Oxford scholarship, Oliver embodies the conflicted middle-class mindset that a right-wing emphasis on upward mobility has given rise to in Britain. Since Thatcher, aspiration, now also embraced by the Labour Party, has been central to the Tory’s political messaging. In Britain, the existence of the aristocracy provides this section of society with a means of understanding themselves within the social order — distinguished from the working class by education and from the upper class by birth. Usurped by the Right and stabilized by capitalism, social aspiration hasn’t produced revolutionary fervor in Britain, but a confused, jealousy-fueled love for those above you.
Which is why Saltburn isn’t about sticking-it to the rich, but nostalgia for antique social structures. In the film’s coup de grâce, Oliver might as well be peeling off a latex face or stroking a white cat as he exposes his ruse to Lady Elspeth, Felix’s mother: in a bid to get his hands on the house, he admits to masterminding the deaths of each member of the Catton family.
As Elspeth lies dying in a hospital bed, Oliver gyrating over her unconscious body, her executors are busy signing papers that name him as the estate’s sole heir. In the end, middle-class triumph has less to do with wreaking revenge on aristocrats than with gaining possession of a place in the country via the most British means possible: inheritance. In an unlikely articulation of the Nairn-Anderson thesis — a set of arguments developed in the New Left Review in the 1960s — Oliver’s custody of Saltburn doesn’t signal a revolutionary act, but the means through which the status quo can be maintained. What the film betrays is an existential middle-class anxiety, induced by the rise of a culturally vacuous superrich elite, who appear to threaten Britain’s patrician past. To counter this fear, Saltburn turns its gaze back on a heady, Evelyn Waugh–tinted ideal of the aristocracy — a noticeably white ruling class who read Shakespeare and collect Bernard Palissy pottery.
But Britain’s aristocracy were never glamorous cultural heroes, even in Waugh’s time, and today the royal family is as uncultured as its predecessors (see: Prince Harry’s contribution to literature in 2023). But facts are rarely strong enough to stand in the way of vibes, especially when they go against the grain of Britain’s cultish admiration for its historical figureheads. Tory toff Winston Churchill, who engineered a famine in India and espoused openly racist views, was named the greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 BBC poll.
One only need visit the real Saltburn, Drayton House, to see how deep nostalgia for the country’s aristocratic past runs among its middle-classes. Open “by appointment only,” visitors can write to current owners, the aristocratic Stopford Sackvilles (who have owned the house since 1769, when, like Oliver Quick, George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville, inherited it from a Lady Elizabeth Germain, who died without heirs), to arrange a tour around the house and gardens. Private estates like Drayton, as well as those owned by the National Trust and English Heritage (open to the public at steep ticket prices) continue to attract throngs of visitors every year.
If critics have struggled to parse Saltburn’s sympathetic portrayal of the aristocracy, that’s because the film betrays the ambivalence that has long characterized the middle-class mindset, now increasingly mixed with fears about the threat to British culture posed by new superrich elites. In the end, there’s little of value in what Fennell’s film has to “say,” and little point in trying to iron out its inconsistencies or make sense of what its “message” might be. But as a product of the middle-class sensibility, what Saltburn reveals about how far the country continues to value its social hierarchies in the twenty-first century is telling.Original post