'In defence of Saltburn, 2023's most divisive movie.'

Saltburn has simultaneously become one of the most talked-about, derided and enjoyed movie releases of the year.

It's one of those films that people who know about movies despise and the people who don't - those who are maybe less 'trained', less 'discerning' - seem to adore. I would plant myself firmly in the latter camp.

The film is the second feature from British filmmaker, writer and actress Emerald Fennell (recognisable to many for her turn as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown). Fennell's writing and directorial debut came via Promising Young Woman, the 2020 film that first proved her ability to slice audiences straight down the middle - and create a huge amount of buzz in the process.

Promising Young Woman was a rape-revenge satire that was, in equal measure, praised for a seriously dark and mesmerising storyline and openly mocked for having a confusing and totally unsatisfying ending. The film was ultimately nominated for five Oscars and Fennell took home the award for Best Original Screenplay.

Which brings us to her latest work, Saltburn. With Fennell again writing and directing, and talent like rising star Barry Keoghan and Gen Z heartthrob (he's also six foot five - have you heard?) Jacob Elordi attached to the project, it drew a lot of attention very quickly.

Watch the Saltburn trailer. Article continues below.

Video via Warner Bros. 

The simplest explanation of the movie (although it is neither simple nor particularly explicable as a viewing experience) is that it is about a middle-class university student who stumbles into the world of his wildly wealthy friend and it is, at its core, a class commentary in the vein of say, Parasite or Squid Game.


The movie is a lush aesthetic experience, dripping with lasciviousness and debauchery. It's also profoundly disturbing, cold, and grotesque - "the bathtub scene" has become a breakout meme in its own right. It's the kind of movie you don't want to take your mum to but has proved itself as the perfect movie to watch with your best friends, white-knuckling on their arms during its most uncomfortable scenes.

And look, Saltburn isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. 

The plot turns are so disorienting they feel like taking a hard right turn in the backseat of a car without a seatbelt. The racial commentary feels awkwardly ham-fisted. And it's frequently cringeworthy in the places that it's probably not meant to be. But to my mind, that doesn't detract from its success as a really, really entertaining movie.

If the whole point of cinema is to make you feel something, Saltburn makes you feel quite a lot (even if a lot of that feeling comes from watching somebody f**k things that shouldn't necessarily be f**ked). 

What the criticism of this movie has revealed seems to be less about the actual movie and more questions about what we really expect from cinema at all. Saltburn has been soundly panned by some critics - take, for instance, the New York Times review, which called it "the sort of embarrassment you'll put up with for 75 minutes. But not for 127. It's too desperate, too confused, too pleased with its petty shocks to rile anything you'd recognise as genuine excitement."

And look, a lot of the critiques are clear-eyed and justifiable, given the film's frequent flaws. But reconciling criticism like this with, say, a Rotten Tomatoes score that tells us 78 per cent of the audience enjoyed it is tricky. 


Sometimes, I feel as though the commentary ignores the audience's willingness to really just take a movie at face-value and enjoy the ride, no matter how brutally silly. Sometimes, we know a film isn't Good with a capital 'g', but that doesn't deter us from liking it anyway.

Saltburn's power - much like Barbie and Oppenheimer before it - is also undeniably in the unique flavour that it is presenting to audiences, who are positively starving for original narratives. We've been so whomped for so long by remakes, sequels and a series of superhero movies so extensive they basically constitute violence. 

Saltburn isn't the movie we need, but it is the movie we deserve.

Critics are clever and they're doing their jobs, but that shouldn't interrupt us, the movie-going masses, from doing our job, which - as far as I'm concerned - is enjoying what we can enjoy, dismissing the completely inexcusable trash, and putting memes about films on our Instagram stories. And Saltburn is perfect for this. 

We want to talk about Barry Keoghan's weirdly jacked body, often we like movies built on pure *vibes* and yes, we absolutely love Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

Elfy Scott is an executive editor at Mamamia. 

Have you seen Saltburn? What were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!

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Image: Warner Bros. Pictures. 

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