Saltburn Cast Open Up About Controversial Thriller

Love it or hate it – and trust me, you won’t be on the fence about it – Saltburn has become one of the most talked about movies of 2023.

Director Emerald Fennell’s controversial follow-up to her Oscar-winning hit Promising Young Woman has sharply divided audiences down the middle; The Guardian even labelled her story of ambitious social climber Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) “the most divisive movie of the year” shortly after its cinema release last month.

This is largely thanks to bonkers set pieces I won’t detail here – Google the film’s title alongside “bathtub”, “vampire”, “gravestone” or (best of all) “Murder On The Dancefloor” for the full lowdown on what’s got people talking, for better and for worse. However, the criticisms weren’t entirely leveraged at its most explicit sequences, with some reviews baffled as to why the character of Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) wasn’t the one centred within the drama.

Like Oliver, he’s a social climber, but as a person of colour within an entirely white world, there would be more stakes to his downfall here. The Gran Turismo star explained to Zavvi that, whilst he understands that criticism, he believes the way Saltburn handles the topic of race is far closer to reality when depicted like this.

Madekwe said: “There are certain conversations meant for certain films; it’s not a film about race, but it is a film about class and outsiders. In reality, I do think this movie discusses race more than the people in these circles would – I’m glad that we were able to have the conversation within the scene that brings it up, as that scene didn’t exist in the context that it did in one of the initial scripts.“I can understand that criticism completely, but that would make this a different film. I think part of Farleigh’s heartache is no one really seeing him and accepting him, and not being able to talk about these things, which a lot of people of colour relate to, but Farleigh’s side of the story is something else entirely.

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“It would be a similar film in the sense that it’s about survival in this world, and an outsider looking in, but he’s not looking to manipulate: he’s looking to get by. He’s self-serving, but a lot less open about showing his cards, which Oliver gets very quickly, and that’s why he can take everything from them – Farley just represents a tale as old as time for a lot of people of colour, he’s just wanting to be able to fit in there.”

The actor was open in talking about the film’s more negative reviews, overjoyed to have played a major part in a film sparking conversations amongst audiences. As I said, nobody is on the fence about Saltburn, and Madekwe loves it.

MGM Studios

“I think that’s the genius of Emerald, it’s exciting to have made something so polarising. I go to see so many films where I leave, say “that’s fine” and never think about it again – so to evoke strong reactions in people is such an exciting thing.

“It doesn’t matter if you love or hate it, the fact that people have felt something to the point where they feel they must talk about it or write about it, that’s what art is about. The beauty of art is that it’s subjective, and to have sparked a reaction or debate like this should be part of the job as an artist.”

Saltburn manor is home to the Catton family, whose matriarch (Rosamund Pike) has a habit of taking in any people she sees as less fortunate than herself – which, to be fair, is most people – and making them her pet project. When her son Felix (Jacob Elordi) brings home Oliver, he’s met with suspicion by Farleigh, but quickly becomes a source of obsession for daughter Venetia (Alison Oliver), who becomes the first person he successfully manipulates.

MGM Studios

Fennell has said that her motivation whilst writing the screenplay was making audiences sympathise with unsympathetic people, but Venetia is one of the more easily likeable figures in Oliver’s orbit. However, that doesn’t mean she isn’t without flaws, and as the actress explained to Zavvi, that was her immediate attraction to this role.

She said: “When you’re playing a character, you don’t just look at them as mean, they’re a million different things. I enjoy watching characters who are flawed or messy, as I relate to them more – if someone has a perfect life, I struggle!

“There are very particular types of characters who I really sympathise with, and I think Venetia had those qualities when I first read her. She looks like she has this traditional Jane Austen lifestyle, living in this big house, but there’s a sadness beneath that; she doesn’t go to university or have a job, and she’s spending her entire life waiting for her brother to come back with people, as it’s only then that anything ever happens.

MGM Studios

“It’s the social norm for her, to be isolated, and that makes her very insecure. She lives in the shadow of her mother and her brother at home, which I think is why she’s become who she is with the eating disorder – and why she’s so tempted to reinvent herself each time a new person comes into her life.”

The scene in which Keoghan’s character fully worms his way into Venetia’s head to manipulate her leads to one of the most discussed sequences – again, Google “Saltburn vampire” for an elaboration on what that entails – which breaks new ground in terms of what it depicts onscreen in a mainstream film. However, the actress didn’t feel like she was breaking any cinematic taboos when filming, finding any shocked responses baffling when it’s a crucial moment for her character.

MGM Studios

“I always saw that scene as being Oliver becoming aware of her insecurities, and using them to make a big impression on her – it’s how she becomes the first victim to his charms, essentially”, she added. “She doesn’t feel noticed, so someone making an investment in her in that way leaves a lasting impression, and means she’s the first person he can get under his thumb.”

So whilst the cast love that they’ve got people talking, they will always stress that there’s substance beneath the shocks. You might love it, you might hate it, but there is one thing that the film’s admirers and detractors can all agree on: you shouldn’t watch this with your family over Christmas.

Saltburn is in UK cinemas now and is streaming on Prime Video from Friday, 22nd December.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder

Contributing Writer

Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. A regular writer for Film Inquiry and The Digital Fix, his work has also been found at the BFI, British GQ, Digital Spy, Little White Lies and more. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.