BFI London Film Festival reviews: Saltburn | May December | All of Us Strangers | The Royal Hotel

British fish-out-of-water drama Saltburn made for an overcooked start to this year’s London Film Festival, but this year’s event has also showcased some great cinema, writes Alistair Harkness

This year’s BFI London Film Festival got off to a reliably terrible start last week with Saltburn (**). This overcooked, under-nourished sophomore effort from Promising Young Woman writer/director Emerald Fennell stars Barry Keoghan as an Oxford scholarship student whose subsequent induction into high-society life by his titled and entitled classmate (Jacob Elordi) takes a turn for the bizarre when he’s invited to stay with the latter’s family’s at their eponymous country estate. An unreliable narrator, self-aware quips about Evelyn Waugh and shots cribbed from Last Year at Marienbad suggest nothing is quite what it seems – unless, that is, you’ve seen The Talented Mr Ripley and The Favourite. Fennell clearly has, and if you have too, the twists will be painfully obvious and the attempts at barbed humour terribly strained, with much of the supporting cast (which includes Carey Mulligan, Rosamund Pike and Richard E Grant) little more than mouthpieces for Fennell’s faux-shocking zingers. Only Elordi comes close to transcending the shallow material; mostly, though, it comes off as the work of someone happy to make something a little bit naughty rather than something truly transgressive.

Luckily, LFF’s need to open with a high-profile British film doesn’t preclude the rest of the festival from showcasing great cinema. Todd Haynes’ latest film May December (****), for instance, was a fantastic antidote to Saltburn: a genuinely subversive psycho-sexual drama, made with real cinematic flair and featuring Natalie Portman and Haynes regular Julianne Moore at top of their game. Its icky story revolves around Portman’s Elizabeth, a credibility seeking actor preparing to shoot a tasteful indie drama about a convicted sex offender (Julianne Moore) who’s now married and raising a family with her now grown-up victim. Working once again in the heightened register of an old-school melodrama – not quite as stylised as Far From Heaven, but much more outré than Carol – Haynes and his cast transform this salacious set-up into a elegantly deranged character study full of raw emotions and malicious power plays.

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Also fascinating was 45 Years director Andrew Haigh’s latest All of Us Strangers (****). A return, of sorts, to his breakthrough film Weekend, it’s built around a much more high-concept conceit that initially hints at sci-fi, but turns out to be more of a ghost story about residual grief, one with some of the emotional kick of Truly, Madly, Deeply, but intimately bound up too with an exploration of gay identity, both in the 1980s and now. Andrew Scott is quietly devastating as Adam, a lonely screenwriter whose efforts to write a script about his childhood resurrects the memory of his deceased parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell) in an unusual way, just as he’s starting to embark on a tentative relationship with his younger, more emotionally forthright neighbour Harry (Aftersun’s Paul Mescal, giving another heartbreaking turn). Haigh’s ability to ground his more fanciful plot turns within truthful relationship drama allows him to build to a quite remarkable ending – one punctuated by an incredible use of Frankie Goes to Hollywood on the soundtrack.

Barry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe in SaltburnBarry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe in Saltburn
Barry Keoghan and Archie Madekwe in Saltburn

There was much to like too about The Royal Hotel (***), director Kitty Green’s follow-up to her acclaimed Weinstein-riffing drama The Assistant. Set in her native Australia, it follows a couple of Canadian backpackers (Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick) on a work-to-travel program as they take a job in a remote outback bar and quickly find themselves out of their depth in place that’s effectively a misogynistic time-warp. Wake in Fright is the obvious precursor, but Green’s film is too tasteful to ever hit the same levels of menace. Still, Garner and Henwick are good, and there are chewy supporting roles for Hugo Weaving and Toby Wallace.

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