Barry Keoghan pretends to be someone who pretends to be someone like him
Review of the movie Saltburn, by Stefan Stenudd
The movie Saltburn (2023) is an enjoyable spectacle thanks to some splendid acting, especially by the lead Barry Keoghan who is carrying just about the whole story on his shoulders. That’s a mighty feat.
Supernatural fiction by Stefan Stenudd
Caroline meets those who do not age, and this ability can be transmitted. But there are grisly downsides. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).
Keoghan plays an underclass misfit at Oxford, falling head over heels for a handsome aristocratic dandy played by Jacob Elordi, who quickly develops an affection for his admirer and invites him to the family mansion Saltburn, a veritable castle leaving his guest in awe. On the other hand, the aristocratic family with its elaborate upper-class ways makes him awkward.
So far, the story is quite typically English, where the fortunate few at the top are always weird but shiny while the commoners are dull and submissive – as if privileges were determined by genetics and social injustice arranged by nature. Whatever happens in such a setting, it always implies that this order neither could nor should be altered. That’s ridiculous.
Saltburn doesn’t deviate from this paradigm, but rather enhances it. Keoghan’s misfit goes from humble to hideous in his urge to get what his hosts have, and in their nobility they are unable to see it coming. The moral of the story is that he doesn’t deserve what he wants and the kindness he was shown by his hosts was a disastrous mistake. As questionable a moral as it is predictable.
Were it not for Barry Keoghan’s passionate embodiment of his character, this parade of stereotypes would lead nowhere. He is the flesh on the bones, and the blood in that flesh. Through his effort the story becomes humanly complex and intriguing, maybe even believable. To use Aristotle’s terminology, he makes the implausible possible. That’s no small feat in this movie.
Keoghan is a fascinating actor. Contrary to Elordi, he is hardly to be regarded as handsome, not at all glamorous, and sometimes he gives the impression of not knowing how to act. But when tension increases and the odd evolves into the grotesque, then he is right there, completely bare (also literally), living the scene with an intensity that makes it so ghastly real, no matter how improbable. He is like an athlete, only triggered by the greatest challenges.
There is an odd parallel between Barry Keoghan and the character he plays. The hardships of his own childhood and upbringing in Ireland are very similar to what his character falsely claims to have gone through. So, Keoghan pretends to be someone who pretends to be someone like him.
That probably doesn’t make the job any easier, but richer – for him as well as for the audience.
January 21, 2024
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I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.