Countless English protagonists have for decades been making their way to grand country estates where their lives are irrevocably changed. “Brideshead Revisited.” “The Go-Between.” “Remains of the Day.” “Rebecca.”
These are some of the books that Emerald Fennell grew up devouring. And when the dust had settled on “Promising Young Woman,” her incendiary Oscar-winning directorial debut, Fennell, too, wanted to make her way to a fictional stately manor.
“I really wanted to make a movie that was a take on the classic English gothic story,” Fennell says. “It felt like an incredibly well-worn and therefore intriguing genre to start looking at and applying pressure to.”
In “Saltburn,” which opens in theaters Nov. 24, Fennell applies her particular and potent brand of pressure to the one of the longest standing British genres. And given the bleakly vengeful conclusion of her provocative debut, it’s safe to say that things get quite a bit bumpier at Saltburn than they ever did at Downton Abbey.
Fennell has already been a memorable part of one conversation-starting film this year. That was her as Midge, the pregnant doll, in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” (Fennell, alas, said she couldn’t comment on her role in “Barbie” due to the actors strike.)
Like that film, “Saltburn,” which Fennell wrote and directs, includes Margot Robbie as a producer. It stars Barry Keoghan as Oliver Quick, an Oxford University freshman on a scholarship who’s drawn to a dashing, aristocratic classmate named Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). Their relationship has strong echoes of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to it.
In the summer of 2006, Felix invites Oliver to his family’s estate where he fits in sometimes awkwardly and sometimes smoothly but increasingly eerily with the extravagant flow of life. Things get steamy, weird and dark as Fennell toys with class as she did with gender in “Promising Young Woman.”
Several in the cast give standout performances — especially Rosamund Pike, who plays Felix’s mother. But it’s also a rare leading performance for Keoghan, himself coming off an Oscar nomination for “The Banshees of Inisherin.” Already some of his scenes — one involving some leftover bathtub water, one a fresh grave — have added to the early buzz around “Saltburn.”
“I saw Barry in ‘Killing of a Sacred Deer’ and I just couldn’t believe it,” Fennell said in a recent interview from London. “That performance was so amazing. It’s a kind of once-in-a-lifetime arresting performance. I just thought immediately: Who is that?”
The opportunities were many for Fennell after the success of “Promising Young Woman.” The film, a blackly comic feminist revenge thriller starring Carey Mulligan, was one of the most talked about movies of 2020. In that first pandemic year, it went on to be nominated for five Oscars including best picture and best director. Fennell won for her script.
“None of us had anticipated how amazing the response would be,” Fennell says. “Because of COVID, I was in a bubble with my young family. So it maybe didn’t feel as surreal as it might. I mean, everything was surreal, so it kind of felt like another surreal thing.”
Once the pandemic subsided, Fennell’s focus turned to “Saltburn,” a film that seemingly could have pulled from her own experiences. Fennell, who attended the elite boarding school Marlborough College and studied at Oxford, is the daughter of jewelry designer and socialite Theo Fennell and author Louise Fennell.
Fennell, though, is reluctant to draw any connections between the high society of her youth and “Saltburn.” Yes, the 37-year-old grants, she attended Oxford around the same time as the characters in the film.
“But I’m afraid the similarities end there,” she says. “It definitely wasn’t quite as sexy.”
Did she consider herself an outsider like Oliver or more of an insider like Felix?
“I was kind of like Oliver, mostly outside of it but occasionally having seen it as well,” Fennell says. “The fascinating thing about these sorts of systems in general, both in America and in England, is that nobody ever really knows whether they’re in or out.”
To her, “Saltburn” is more about those anxious undercurrents among family, friends and hangers-on, each playing by unspoken codes of money, class and privilege.
“There was a world where ‘Saltburn’ might have been set in the Hamptons,” Fennell says. “If you’re allowed in these places, it’s never a one-way ticket. Honestly, it could be set anywhere. It could be set in Los Angeles and the court, rather than being a stately home, is a compound of an incredibly famous actor and actress. It all works the same way. It’s power. Who wants it and who’s got it.”
Fennell, who was the showrunner and an executive producer for the second season of “Killing Eve,” often used the phrase “poison popcorn movie” to describe “Promising Young Woman” — an entertainment laced with more disturbing issues to contemplate.
She remains committed to eliciting that kind of dual response — something that people are eager to watch and just as eager debate after on their way home. Her current favorite film, which she says she’s seen 20 times, is Ari Aster’s “Beau Is Afraid.” “I think it’s truly the greatest film of the last 10 years and I’m obsessed with it,” Fennell says.
It would be giving too much away to describe how “Saltburn” unspools. But to Fennell, it’s ultimately about the deep longing and ambition of Oliver, a young man yearning to live. It’s a love story, she says.
“This movie feels to me like the closest thing to wanting something,” says Fennell. “There’s a particular type of need and want that you feel at a certain point in your life when it’s the first time you felt it, whether it’s about a person or a place. The intensity of the desire to make yourself. That, to me, is what the film is about.”