“Some of the characters in this film have a scary command over other people,” Fennell agrees, while acknowledging that the most beguiling such moments are stealthier. “There’s a huge, beautiful, warm charisma that somebody like Felix has, that you can see coming a mile off. And then there’s this other kind of nighttime thing. That is very different.” There’s more than just Felix for Oliver; Saltburn contains far more than the carnal attraction and sweet schoolboy romance that buoyed Elio (Timothée Chalamet’s breakout role) in Luca Guadagnino’s film.
Keoghan is mercurial and holds great menace in his stare. “I think of him almost like a silent actor or a Pinter actor, in that where he excels is in the moments of stillness and quiet,” says Fennell of Keoghan. “That’s where he has so much power over other characters and over us as the audience. And, crucially, he is absolutely gorgeous. Lighting him was a pleasure.”
Keoghan’s beauty, however, is really nothing next to the mansion in the country that is Saltburn itself. Felix’s family home for the summer is a sprawling estate that makes Wonderland look like a Wilko (Brits know) and promises to swallow you whole. Nobody speaks of the secrets in the walls. The place becomes more than a character, something spiritual that promises a threat only those who go there can really understand.
It’s here that the fun and the tragedy really begin—Fennell, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for her first film, writes jokes you feel somewhat cursed for laughing at (“I know it’s going well when the more dreadful it becomes the more people laugh,” she says). Her characters are drawn so vividly, you feel they just must be real—except it’s staggering to imagine any living, breathing person daring to say such things. When Felix lets slip about Oliver’s mother’s struggle with substance abuse, his own mother, Lady Elspeth Catton (a scene-stealing Rosamund Pike), tells her friend and longtime guest Pamela (Carey Mulligan) she had heard the dreadful news of these babies, like Oliver, being born drunk.