March 2024

Brideshead Eviscerated

Saltburn, The Holdovers

Miles David Moore


The misbehaviors of the very rich, and those who aspire to be very rich,
are, in a sense, the main topic of world literature. Shakespeare’s plays and Balzac’s novels would collapse without it.  Even those authors who did not generally focus on the very rich, such as Dickens, portray poor people ground down by the cruelty of the very rich and the system they created.  In America, Twain, Dreiser, Steinbeck, and Dos Passos wrote searingly of the injustices created by concentrated wealth, while Fitzgerald specialized in portraying the damage caused by the possession of wealth.  (Hemingway pretended to ignore the subject.)

And then there was Evelyn Waugh.  Even as Waugh skewered the mindless viciousness of his London social set in such novels as Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall, and A Handful of Dust, he retained a reverence for wealth and aristocracy that was bound inextricably with his ultra-devout Catholicism.  The result was Brideshead Revisited, an exquisitely written novel about an outsider’s longing for the bejeweled lives of a family of Catholic aristocrats, and his being drawn in against his will with their search for salvation.

What if Waugh had never found God?  What if he had stopped at A Handful of Dust, which takes a much more jaundiced view of aristocracy?  Or what if Patricia Highsmith had gone after Brideshead Revisited (and Waugh) with a meat ax?  The result would have been something like Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, although Saltburn’s Oliver Quick isn’t as successful a creation as Charles Ryder or Tom Ripley.

Saltburn begins with present-day Oliver (Barry Keoghan) saying, “Was I in love with him?  I don’t think so.  I loved him,” as pictures flash on the screen of his late friend, the handsome Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi).  We then arrive at a flashback of Oliver entering Oxford in the Class of 2006.  To say Oliver doesn’t fit in is an understatement; the only classmate who will speak to him is Michael Gavey (Ewan Mitchell), a super-Asperger’s math major.  The smart set in his class, led by Felix and his mixed-race cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe), won’t give Oliver a second glance except to guffaw at him.

Then one day Felix gets a flat tire on his bicycle, on his way to a session with his tutor.  Oliver offers to lend Felix his bike.  Touched by Oliver’s kindness, Felix invites him into his circle—to the consternation of Farleigh and others—leading to an invitation from Felix for Oliver to join him for the summer at Saltburn, the Catton family estate.

The events at Saltburn form the bulk of the movie, which divided critics more than any other film in 2023.  If asked whether I find it a fascinating descent into depravity or an annoying collection of cheap tricks meant to titillate the audience, I would say, “Yes,” with a slight prejudice toward the latter. The already infamous bathwater scene is only the most provocative—or irritating—of the putative shocks Saltburn has to offer.  Fennell, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and production designer Suzie Davies deserve credit for creating an-all enveloping gothic atmosphere and for some wonderful bravura scenes, such as Felix giving Oliver a whirlwind tour of Saltburn’s treasures. But the decadence of the Catton family and the gradually revealed treachery of Oliver are not particularly shocking; neither is the ending, twisted as it is. 

Nevertheless, Saltburn is worth seeing, both for its hothouse atmosphere and for its performances.  Elordi’s Felix is a charismatic amalgam of Sebastian Flyte and Dickie Greenleaf, Madekwe’s Farleigh a charmingly cynical hanger-on.  Alison Oliver as Felix’s suicidal sister Venetia has some wonderful bravura moments, such as when she denounces Oliver from her bathtub.  The always reliable Richard E. Grant plays Sir James, Felix’s father, as a teddy bear who suddenly grows fangs and claws when his suspicions are aroused.   There is also an amusing turn by Carey Mulligan—star of Fennell’s previous film, Promising Young Woman—as “Poor Dear Pamela,” a professional houseguest whose neediness elicits the Cattons’ sympathy until it doesn’t.

The film’s two cynosures, however, are Rosamund Pike as Lady Elspeth, Felix’s mother, and Keoghan. Pike’s Elspeth is first cousin to Absolutely Fabulous’ Edina Monsoon, a privileged airhead absolutely convinced of her own perspicacity; that assurance leads eventually to the doom of herself and her family.  As for Keoghan, he is as singular an actor as Christopher Walken or Steve Buscemi.  No other actor has his presence, which can most readily be described in oxymoronic terms: sinister naivete.  He has used this quality playing characters malevolent (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) or innocent (The Banshees of Inisherin). Saltburn offers him a chance to use this quality to villainous effect.  When Oliver dances naked around Saltburn’s stately halls, it would be bitter irony to call him the happy genius of the household.

For a more trenchant evisceration of the upper class—as well as a better movie—turn to Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers.  Written by David Hemingson, The Holdovers never gets near a stately house, but it offers a stern assessment of the very rich through the tale of three prickly but ultimately lovable characters—all in their own ways victims of the ruling class--who forge an unlikely bond.

The Holdovers begins at fictional Barton Academy, a New England prep school, during the Christmas season of 1970.  Paul Hunham (Paul
Giamatti) is a curmudgeonly, bourbon-guzzling Latin teacher who suffers from a glandular problem that makes him smell like fish.  Despised by almost everyone on campus, he refuses to give As and delights in giving Ds and Fs.  He delights even more in baiting his overprivileged pupils.  When arrogant Teddy Kounze (Brady Hepner) says, “I can’t fail this class!” Hunham replies, “Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Kounze. I truly believe that you can.” Hunham gives only one student a B+--Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a brilliant but cynical troublemaker in constant danger of being transferred to military school. 

Students at Barton generally do not go anywhere near the military.  One recent exception was Curtis Lamb, a Black scholarship student admitted as a favor to his mother Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook.  Curtis’ formal military portrait is on display in Barton’s chapel, memorializing his recent combat death in Vietnam.  Mary, paralyzed with grief and anger, is running on autopilot.

The Holdovers tells the story of how Hunham, Tully and Mary are forced to spend the Christmas holidays together at Barton.  It is in essence an exile for all three.  The reasons for Mary’s isolation are obvious.  Tully, expecting to travel over break to St. Kitts with his mother and stepfather, is stranded after they decide to go alone.  For Hunham—in trouble with the headmaster (Andrew Garman) for flunking the son of one of Barton’s major donors—this is only the latest of a lifelong series of humiliations, the worst of which becomes apparent when the threesome take an impromptu road trip to Boston.

Most viewers will remember The Holdovers for the touching, if transitory, friendship that forms between the three titular characters.  The even more fascinating aspect of the movie, however, is how all three are stranded in a world defined and run by bullies.  Several American authors—Fitzgerald, John Cheever, John Knowles, Louis Auchincloss—delineated the world of the prep school, its denizens, and its alumni.  Those authors make it excruciatingly plain that the prep-school world produces graduates who believe absolutely in their right to rule and to punish those who make trouble.  Mary is defined as a troublemaker merely by dint of her race, her gender, and her rage at her son’s death.  (Hunham uses Mary’s grief as an object lesson for Tully—about how Barton students don’t go to Vietnam, except for Curtis Lamb.)  Tully is ostensibly a member of the ruling class, but his parents’ callous disregard and the disdain of his classmates signify his status as a misfit.  His archenemy Kounze, a rat-bully by any standard, is the sort of student who rules at Barton, just as he will rule whatever rarefied milieu he enters after graduation.  (One of the saddest scenes in The Holdovers shows a younger student waving goodbye to his mitten, which Kounze has tossed into a fast-flowing creek.)

As for Hunham, his classical scholarship informs his stance as a Roman Stoic.  He is fond of handing out copies of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the classic expression of Stoic philosophy.  (“And not one mention of God!” he adds with a flourish.)  At the end Hunham demonstrates his Stoicism by metaphorically falling on his sword in the headmaster’s office, with a parting shot to the headmaster: “You are the human equivalent of penis cancer.”

Payne has stated in interviews that he intended The Holdovers to be the sort of humanistic, character-driven movie that was in vogue at the time the story is set.  (He even devised a 1970s-style logo for the releasing company, Focus Features, which did not exist until just after the turn of the millennium.)  The Holdovers is indeed character-driven and richly human—funny, poignant, and insightful.  Hunham, Tully and Mary are united by their being the targets of anyone with the slightest bit of authority , even the waitress who refuses to serve Cherries Jubilee to Tully.  (The Seventies connection is especially apparent in this scene—a first cousin of the “hold the chicken between your knees” sequence in Five Easy Pieces.)

The cast is superb down to the smallest bit part, and the three leads have been cleaning up during awards season—deservedly so. All three reach their zenith in the Christmas Eve party scene, in which each has a character revelation—denoted, in Randolph’s case, by a single closeup—that will leave your hearts bleeding on the floor.

At the end, Kounze, the headmaster, and Tully’s parents can feel smugly satisfied that Barton is back to its status quo. Hunham, meanwhile, is embarking on an odyssey, the outcome of which neither he nor we can know.  The last scene, however, demonstrates that we should never count him out. 


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4’s Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Miles David Moore
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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