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The Real Saltburn? Oxford Students Are Saltburnt Out

University of Oxford students went mad for Saltburn, but not in quite the same way the rest of the world did.

The real Saltburn: Oxford University
Illustration by John Creed

The ‘bathwater’ scene. The ‘vampire’ scene. Getting a little too friendly with a grave. If I asked you to name the most shocking moment from Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, I’d be fairly confident you’d go for one of these three. Unless that is, you happen to be a student at the University of Oxford.

In that case, I’d hazard a guess it would be a throwaway line about a street in Oxford, the barely present ‘tutorial’ scene, or the part where a character eats a Crunchie in a library. Or the grave scene (for those who know that Barry Keogan improvised the whole thing…). As you can see, Saltburn mania has been a little different for those of us whose experience it parodied, so I’m going to attempt to shed a little light on exactly how it’s played out here in Oxford.

Privileged access: watching Saltburn in Oxford

Looking back on it, Saltburn was never going to hit the same in Oxford as elsewhere – for a start, we have a penchant for odd cultural obsessions the rest of the world doesn’t care about. Online discourse still takes place on Facebook, and the odd student dresses as Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited 40 years after the TV show came out.

It was a particularly forgone conclusion this time, though a private screening was offered to Oxford students a week before it hit the cinemas. This meant we had plenty of time to develop our own discourse around the film before it blew up elsewhere. 

Ollie has his rented white tie adjusted by Farleigh, outside Oxford landmark the Radcliffe Camera
Ollie has his rented white tie adjusted by Farleigh, outside Oxford landmark the Radcliffe Camera. Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime

On 10th November 2023, students flocked to the trendy independent cinema the Ultimate Picture Palace for exclusive viewing. These weren’t just any Oxford students, though. The screening had been organized by the campus magazine The Isis (named after a river in Oxford in 1892).

The Isis has always been associated with a particular student group: to call on the creator of another Oxford-centred media frenzy, Evelyn Waugh recalled it during in the 1920s as ‘boring and hearty, written for beer drinkers and rugger players’.

Now, the reputation is quite the reverse: typically, the writers are whimsical-looking girls clad in vintage scarves and fur coats (fake, of course). They host launches in obscure music venues and publish pieces with titles like ‘One must imagine Wittgenstein cruising’.

Ollie (Barry Keoghan) arrives at fictional Webbe College, Oxford (Brasenose)
Ollie (Barry Keoghan) arrives at fictional Webbe College, Oxford (Brasenose)

This is exclusivity within exclusivity: the magazine is notoriously hard to write for and has a nepotistic reputation. In short, the people crowding into that cinema were of exactly the sort that Ollie would have dreamed of befriending.

My viewing experience

‘the biggest laugh in an Oxford cinema? When Ollie is told ‘the reading list is optional’.

Full disclosure: I couldn’t make this screening, so I had to wait to watch the film with everyone else. This meant by the time I went, I was already steeped in Saltburn chatter – although from what I’d been hearing, I expected the whole film to be set in Oxford, given that’s all anyone had to say about it. I’m not sure I would have known Rosamund Pike was in it if I hadn’t heard from my family. 

Ollie (Barry Keoghan) stands in front of the Oxford skyline
Ollie (Barry Keoghan) stands in front of the Oxford skyline. Credit: MGM/Amazon Prime

I still got the full Oxford experience, seeing it a week late, though. The biggest laugh was indisputably when an Oxford tutor told Ollie that ‘the reading list is optional’.

Most students would tell you that isn’t true, although as an English student, I remember having a similar experience when I arrived and realized we had no set texts for most of the course, only ‘reading suggestions’.

The other big guffaw was when Felix told Ollie he had a class on Iffley Road (there are no university buildings on that particular road). The sense of exclusivity prevailed: these were jokes no one else would get as if Emerald Fennell had left some Easter eggs for the next generation of Oxford students.

Talk of the town

By mid-November, Saltburn was all anyone was talking about. I can’t speak for the personal conversations of other friendship groups (mine certainly dwelt on the film a lot). To replicate the general chatter, I’ve compiled a few examples from an anonymous Facebook group.

Students love to use Oxfess for everything from complaining about freshers being too loud in the library to stating their anonymous crushes. A couple of examples of the best Saltburn-related ones: 

By January, one user summed up all of our feelings by coining a new term for our collective ennui, which quickly spread around campus:

Outside of Facebook, student newspaper Cherwell published articles entitled ‘The Saltburn We Should Have Had’, ‘On Saltburn, Integrity and Class’, and even ‘Saltburn: A Mid-Noughties Fashion Revival’. The first two ruminated on the inaccuracy of Fennell’s class satire. As a privately educated alumna, Fennell really should have known better than to portray classism in Oxford quite so crudely.

The final one, however, highlights again the contrasting reception of the film in Oxford and elsewhere. The film’s fashions have inspired a revival of forgotten trends, but in Oxford, we never stopped wearing them.

I recently hosted a society event with a graduate who attended Oxford at a similar time to Fennell. After having dinner with a group of students, they told me that we dressed the same as their cohort. ‘It’s the vintage look isn’t it – clothes you’d only know were expensive if you know what to look for’. Some things don’t change, apparently. 

Saltburnt out

When term started again in January, things really started ratcheting up. A heightening of the stakes brought about the end of the Saltburn era in Oxford. Brasenose College, where Ollie and Felix’s college scenes were filmed, announced a Saltburn-themed ‘bop’. A bop is essentially a school disco hosted by a college – Another example of Oxford’s nostalgia.

Outrage immediately broke out online – the opportunity to claim the moral high ground was not to be missed: 

The bop went ahead, but people did seem less keen to talk about the film after this. Finally, it seems, Oxford truly was Satlburnt out. The only remnant of the frenzy is a tendency among DJs to occasionally finish a club night with ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’. Although, I haven’t heard of anyone going full Barry Keoghan and stripping naked to imitate his dance (yet).

Written By

I'm in my final year at the University of Oxford, studying English. I'm interested in all kinds of writing, from theatre reviewing to covering current affairs, with a particular focus on Gen Z's engagement with politics and popular culture.

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