In the opening minutes of Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s raucous tale of decadence and debauchery, we see a nervous fresher, Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan), enter Oxford college (unnamed, but ostensibly Brasenose) and embark on a new chapter of his life. Soon, he’ll cross paths with Jacob Elordi’s Felix Catton, a blue-blooded charmer who sweeps him off to his magnificent family estate—but, before that, the first portion of the film plays out in the dusty libraries, cavernous dining halls, cosy pubs, wood-panelled offices and grotty common rooms of this historic university.
Since Brideshead Revisited whet the public appetite for tales of punting, picnicking and youthful misadventure under the city’s honey-coloured dreaming spires, there’s been no shortage of films and TV shows trying to document the undergraduate experience—The Riot Club, Tolkien, Anatomy of a Scandal—but few have been successful. Saltburn, however, has a certain advantage: Fennell herself read English at Oxford’s now-closed Greyfriars College in the mid-Noughties, the same period in which her latest release is set.
As a result, her depiction of glittering balls and sweaty club nights, of elaborate dinners and stressful tutorials, feel authentic, though not every single detail is exactly true to life—or at least, not in my experience. (I read English at Oxford some five years after Fennell, at Trinity, a stone’s throw from her old college and just around the corner from the fictional Oliver’s.)
Below, a rundown of everything Saltburn gets right (and wrong) about going to Oxford.
You’ll meet a lot of people who are obsessed with your family connections (or lack thereof)
It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that this is true. One of the earliest scenes in Saltburn—the one where Oliver’s tutorial partner, Felix’s American cousin Farleigh, is quizzed by their tutor during their first meeting about his relation to the Cattons—made me laugh out loud because it rang so true. I didn’t even have to wait that long—at my Oxford interview, the first thing I was asked was if I was a relation of the novelist Vikram Seth. I’m not and, for a second, I actually worried that saying as much would mean not getting in. Luckily, it didn’t.
The North is seen as a vague and nebulous concept
Generally true. Oliver’s tutor seems troubled to hear that he is from Preston, and that’s very much in keeping with my Oxford experience. There’s a big international cohort, certainly, but beyond that, the majority of people in my college and my year more broadly—both students and tutors—seemed to be from the south of England (or the midlands, at a stretch) and most had either gone to boarding school or one of about five independent schools in London (St Paul’s, Westminster, South Hampstead, North London Collegiate School, Francis Holland). When I told people I was also from London, I’d be asked, “Which school?”, but when I replied that I’d gone to a state school, I got some confused looks. It’s worth adding, though, that for some Oxford-based tutors, consumed with research and not particularly engaged with the daily news cycle, everything outside of central Oxford feels like a vague and nebulous concept. During a particularly severe set of floods, I remember one tutor being entirely unaware that other parts of the city were under water as he himself lived in college and rarely left it.
No one actually reads the holiday reading list during the holidays
True, at least if you’re doing English like Oliver is—though a tutor would, of course, never tell you that to your face as Oliver’s does to him. I’ve found that one of the biggest misconceptions about Oxford is that everyone is academically focused during term and fully prepared for every tutorial and seminar, when the reality is that, like all other students and every other university, people are just trying to balance studying with socialising, student societies and their other interests, and staying afloat as best they can.
You’ll need a lot of fancy dress
True. As Oliver and Felix become friends, we see them partying hard in various get-ups, and this is a major part of Oxford life. Called “bops” (yes, I’m not kidding) and held two or three times a term in college, these fancy dress parties have themes such as “Fairytale”, “Thrift Shop” or “Song Names”. For the latter, during my second year, one fellow student famously went as “Arcade Fire”, complete with a cut-out Pac-Man worn around his neck and a homemade flamethrower that was eventually confiscated.
The poshest people have the dirtiest rooms on campus
False. Felix’s college room is filthy and Oliver’s attempts to clean it annoy him, and lead to Felix icing him out. While this plot point might have been necessary to show how easily Oliver can fall out of Felix’s orbit, in reality, an undergrad’s room is unlikely to ever get to this state. Not because they’d keep it clean, obviously, but because Oxford colleges have “scouts”, cleaners who come into your room each morning to take your bins out and generally tidy up. If you don’t live in college accommodation, however, it’s a whole other story.
There’s a lot of vomiting in sinks
True. I won’t linger on this one, but I should say: Oxford college rooms have sinks but most aren’t en suite—your nearest communal bathroom is often quite far away, in the basement, on the top floor or by your building’s staircase, and people often struggle to, um, reach them before the inevitable occurs.
Even though Oxford is a very formal place, it’s generally frowned upon for students to dress formally during the day
True, on the whole, though there’s no way for Oliver to have known this—he’s mocked for wearing a suit jacket and tie when he arrives at college, and later pairs the look with a black gown for dinner. It’s odd because Oxford is indisputably a very formal place, but the expectation is that you’ll be ultra casual unless you have a specific reason not to be. This means that if you’re having lunch or dinner in your college dining hall on a regular day, a T-shirt and jogging bottoms is fine, preferred even to something more formal. (“Informal halls” are cafeteria-style, while “formal halls” are three-course meals with table service which require you to wear a black gown over your casual clothes. For undergrads, these are either “scholars” gowns with billowing sleeves, for those who get a first in their end-of-year exams, and sleeveless “commoners” gowns, for those who don’t. To no one’s surprise, I remained a “commoner” for my three years at Oxford.) If you’re going to a “guest night” in your college dining hall, however, you’re expected to wear black tie. If you happen to be in Oxford during term time, you’ll see the streets transform between 6 and 7pm—off go the jeans and rowing gear and on go the tuxedos and ball gowns. It’s pretty disorientating to witness.
There’s something of a divide between those who own their black tie and those who rent it
Sadly true. There’s a sequence in Saltburn where Farleigh makes fun of Oliver’s rented black tie ahead of a college ball, and I’ve definitely seen a few versions of that scene play out in person. I also never thought I’d know so many people who owned their own black tie.
After exams, students are showered with confetti and given medals by their friends
Not quite. What we see happening to Oliver and Farleigh when they finish their exams in Saltburn isn’t the whole truth. In my day, when you finished your exams, your friends would wait for you at the back exit of the Examination Schools building and “trash” you—namely, cover you, not just in confetti, but also flour, eggs, champagne, whipped cream and silly string, and then force you to jump into the Cherwell river. Then you’d spend the rest of the day trying to get it all off yourself. What we see in Saltburn is far less sordid. It makes sense—this is a blink-and-you-miss-it scene which exists simply to signify the beginning of summer, and also one that doesn’t glorify this practice, which in more recent years the university has, rightly, been working hard to phase out, given it’s both a waste of food and expensive to clean up after. One detail Saltburn does get right in this portion of the film, though? The exiting students are all wearing red carnations—a tradition for those going into their final exams. (In your final year, you pin a white carnation to your gown when you go to sit your first exam, and a pink carnation for your subsequent exams, until the last.)
At Oxford, you’re likely to meet at least one public schoolboy who fabricates stories about his childhood
Sadly, in my experience, true. You know who you are.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.