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TV reviews: Saltburn, Maestro, Fellow Travelers

Everyone is talking about Saltburn but what does the film really say, asks Sean Cook, and is Maestro a perfect work?

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Now screening in Australia on Amazon Prime

It only took a modest amount at the box office. It has divided critics and audiences alike. It has been snubbed so far at the awards season and it is constantly being compared unfavourably to The Talented Mr Ripley and Brideshead Revisited. All that said, Saltburn was number one on Amazon Prime for all of December (seeing off numerous Christmas movies) and is still in the top ten. It’s gone viral on TikTok (Saltburn-related videos have recorded four billion views on TikTok alone), rich gen-Z’s are claiming it is the movie that defines their generation (give me The Breakfast Club or Muriel’s Wedding any day!) and, of course, it has propelled Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor back to the top of the charts.
So what’s it about? Not-so-rich-kid meets rich-kid at a posh university when he helps him fix his bike one afternoon. After said encounter, rich-kid suddenly feels compelled to pull not-so-rich-kid into his fold and after a few beers during which not-so-rich-kid provides anecdotes about his impoverished upbringing, rich-kid decides to invite not-so-rich-kid back to his sprawling mansion (Saltburn) for the summer. So far, so Brideshead Revisited. At Saltburn, not-so-rich-kid meets rich-kid’s stereotypical fucked-up and eccentric aristocratic family and spends the summer with them doing what fucked-up and eccentric aristocratic families do.. which is not very much (aside from acting fucked-up and eccentric in dining halls, around swimming pools and in garden mazes). The not-so-rich-kid becomes increasingly obsessed with rich-kid and his aspirational life and (as expected) things start to take a sinister turn. I won’t give away too much, only to say that it follows a similar path to The Talented Mr Ripley, though I’m not sure it has the same complexity or pathos of that movie or indeed the solid characterisation to make it plausible.
So why is everyone talking about it? It certainly has some standout viral-bait scenes (the bath scene, the grave scene and the final dance scene to name but three) and perhaps in our social-media obsessed world that’s enough to make something a hit? And Barry Keoghan (who I think is an exceptional young actor) plays an anti-hero who fucks over a rich family (and we all love an anti-hero). However, unlike Ripley and Brideshead, which were both great character studies, I failed to see any pathos or indeed irony in Saltburn. Whereas Ripley and Brideshead were both dark commentaries on class and wealth, Saltburn sends the opposite message. It seems to say that we should all aspire to insane levels of wealth and do whatever it takes to get it. Just maybe, because we live in a social-media obsessed world and are constantly being told that wealth is the ultimate goal of life, that is why Saltburn has been such a breakout hit. Be sad if it’s true. 3 out of 5 stars

2TBJ9KX Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Director/Writer/Producer) in “Maestro” (2023). Photo credit: Jason McDonald/Netflix


Now screening in Australia on Netflix

In Maestro, Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan act their socks off and will no doubt be rewarded accordingly come awards season. I really can’t find fault in the writing, direction or cinematography either and was mesmerised by this film.. but it’s not going to be for everyone. A biopic about the late, great composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Maestro largely focuses on the loving but tumultuous marriage between Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre. Bernstein was bisexual and, as it went back then, had to get married to a woman in order to further his career. That’s not to say that Bernstein didn’t love and need Montealegre. She was his rock and encouraged him to soar. She was also successful in her own right and thankfully the movie gives her equal footing too. Yes, there have been grumbles about Cooper’s fake nose (I’m staying out of that debate) and I did read an article in the New York Times about the lack of attention paid to both Bernstein’s male lovers and his queerness in the film (which I think are legitimate gripes). Overall, I think it’s an almost perfectly-pitched piece of filmmaking. 4 and a half out of 5 stars.

(L-R): Matt Bomer as Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller and Jonathan Bailey as Tim in FELLOW TRAVELERS, “Hit Me.” Photo Credit: Ben Mark Holzberg/SHOWTIME.

Critic’s Choice

Fellow Travelers And The Rise Of The Queer Matinée Idol 

Apple TV, Paramount+ 2023

Set against the backdrop of the Lavender scare (a witch hunt against queer people in government in 1950s America that ran adjacent to the Red Scare), Fellow Travelers is a story about two men, Hawkins Fuller (Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey), who meet and fall in love but can’t be together because society says they can’t. Hawkins decides that the only way he can progress in life is by getting married while Laughlin decides that the only way he can survive without Hawkins is by joining the army.
The film fast-forwards to the ‘80s and we see that their love story didn’t really end well (it didn’t really end but nor did it blossom). Across the next four episodes we cut between the ‘50s and ‘80s, slowly piecing together why things have turned out the way they have. Then at around episode five (just as the show has set up a neat juxtaposition between queer persecution in the McCarthy era and queer persecution in the AIDS era), the show moves into the ‘60s and the ‘70s. During these later episodes, it becomes a little less clear what the show’s overriding theme is. However, things get back on track in the last two episodes and we are left with a moving portrait of a love that couldn’t be because of the pressures placed on queer people by society.
What makes the show truly shine are Matt Bomer’s and Jonathan Bailey’s performances. Both actors possess that rare on-screen charisma that you equate with the matinee idols from yesteryear. Both actors are openly queer and their stars are on the ascent. Let’s hope they both go onto become the first really big OPENLY queer matinee idols.
4 out of 5 stars.