You’re always on the outside looking in at Saltburn. The fictional country estate that lends its name to Emerald Fennell’s strange and homoerotic eat-the-rich food fight isn’t as much a gilded cage as it is a socioeconomic fortress; magnificent, grand and wholly unwelcoming to aliens. As Paul Rhys’ goth waxen butler so often likes to remind us: “lots of people get lost in Saltburn”.
It’s an orienteering lesson for Barry Keoghan’s hapless and charmless northern lead, Oliver: a state schooler on an Oxbridge scholarship who, as a child, was apparently forced to make a home of a crack house. He meets Felix Catton, Jacob Elordi’s lithe and landed gentry hearthrob, becomes obsessed, and is then inducted into the world of old English money. Over the course of one atomic summer, Oliver transforms from pariah to Saltburner proper. He enters the sprawling house a bespectacled loser. He leaves more charming, more handsome, more like them – his transition largely facilitated by the most simple and effective Yassify move in makeover scene lore: they remove his glasses! And he gets hot!
More than that, though, we see an Oliver that’s contorted his way through Saltburn to walk among its owners, a chameleon whose skin has almost settled upon the perfect Pantone shade of ‘blue blood’. And yet for all the changing, like the general vibe in this house of disappearing guests and depressed children, something is off. Oliver is never truly at one with the Catton clan.
“There’s such a transition between Oliver’s costumes at the very beginning: we see him at university arriving in a blazer and a scarf – he feels like he’s meant to dress the part and everyone else is in their casuals, pyjamas, Juicy Couture tracksuits,” says Sophie Canale, Saltburn‘s costume designer. “There’s a perception in life where you can see that you’re in the same class as someone else, and you perceive what their world is like. And then it’s like ‘oh, actually, this isn’t it.” It’s a point of difference that fuels the fire of Cousin Farleigh, a bitch of the highest order viciously played by Archie Madekwe. Before an Oxbridge dinner, he sarcastically compliments Oliver on a tux that’s a little too baggy. “It’s a rental, right?” he withers. Both Oliver and the audience cringe.
Some of Saltburn‘s most memorable scenes focus on sacred dress codes (“We dress for dinner here,” says Felix as he prepares Oliver for the coded rituals of what would be a normal meal anywhere else). But it’s in the off-duty where the clothes make a din. Set in the hot mess of 2006 where Oxford shirts collided with skinny jeans, bodycon and whatever the fuck ‘nu-rave’ was, it’s an era that’s well and truly in the past but still too fresh to enjoy a second-wave reappraisal. “Facebook was a huge resource for me to be able to absorb this world,” says Canale. “And so many people were using Facebook at that time in a really unfiltered way. It was such a new thing to be sharing this with new friends and old friends and it was the start of everyone putting everything out there.” In the many party scenes, the side fringes are plentiful and the T-shirts tight and ugly. They’re clothes for unflattering digital camera shots, ideally with the timestamp pinned to the corner in bright red.
In his early stages of assimilation, Oliver’s attempts to fit in with the party crowd fashion are few. It’s his time at Saltburn that really sets the wheels in motion. Without spoiling too hard, his ultimate boss level sees Oliver polished, preened and presentable, with Felix’s mother remarking upon how much he looks ‘like a man’. “But it’s still not hitting it,” says Canale. “It’s not the Ralph Lauren. It’s not the Tommy Hilfiger. It’s the Marks & Spencer high street version. He’s trying, but also, he’s just not getting it right.” If the Cattons are reclining in popped collars and Eton Ramblers cricket sweater, Oliver is polo shirting in a two bed on Clapham Common. It’s just not the same level of privilege.
Still, so confident is Oliver in his new skin that he performs a naked victory dance through the Catton manor – a scene that seems purpose-built for Twitter reaction vids. But he is misplaced. Oliver’s name is on the deed of Saltburn, but at his basest, most purest form, his nude body is too cruel and too brutish for this house. In Felix and the many topless scenes that meme pander a little too hard, his slenderness feels organic, a genetic bonus that comes with graceful and natural height. But for Oliver, his body has been honed and pummelled by hours in the gym; the product of a long and gruelling regime to transform. The Cattons don’t get jacked. They’re just born hot.
And maybe that’s the point. In his final form, Oliver might not be celebrating his induction at all. He knows that despite all the changing, the self-censoring and the imitating, he will never truly belong. Money can’t buy him Saltburn style. He’s still on the outside. But at the film’s end, he gets to destroy the Cattons from within – and at a time when millions of people want the 1 per cent on the menu, perhaps that’s something to dance about.