There are a few things you can expect to see when you go to university in the UK. The Home Counties rugby boy who studies economics and is never seen without his signet ring. The quiet girl who starts listening to A Tribe Called Quest and reinvents herself with a nose piercing. Four quid Lidl wine, Wednesday night pints at the pub, emptied bottles of cheap vodka. American Boy by Kanye West and Estelle played at every pre-drinks.
Emerald Fennell’s hedonistic new film Saltburn goes some way to depicting these tropes. Set within the hallowed halls of Oxford University, Fennell’s alma mater, Saltburn guides the audience through the first year of uni, from moving into halls and the half-arsed fancy dress parties, to the inevitable realisation that a surprising number of your classmates have a holiday home in France. It’s cathartic, nostalgic and a little weird to see British uni life portrayed on such raw and realistic terms. And it’s an experience that perhaps feels strange because Fennell is largely alone in her quest to recreate the sheer mania of British uni life.
Instead, we’re swimming in films about the American college experience. We’ve seen Mark Zuckerburg change culture forever from the cushty dorms of Harvard, while Elle Woods strutted through its campus wearing hot pink couture. House Bunny parodied sorority life. Bad Neighbours took aim at frat houses. Somehow we sat through three Pitch Perfect musicals. The impact of these films is global: a survey of Chinese and South Korean students in the US found that more than two thirds had been influenced by Hollywood’s depiction of American student life.
Perhaps this appetite for films about American universities is tied up in the US’s general obsession with the idea of college. Think: families recording themselves opening acceptance letters, huge graduation ceremonies, school pride and mascots, prestigious alumni networks, and the incredibly intricate process of sorority selection. In the US, uni isn’t simply a few years of making mistakes and stumbling through studying. It’s a spectacle.
This also goes some way to explaining the clear bias towards Oxbridge in the few UK-set uni films we do have. The tradition of our prestigious unis appears to be the most appealing subject for directors – and most likely colours how British student life is perceived by the rest of the world. For the majority of us, though, going to uni is nothing like the formal dinners and sadistic initiations of Saltburn or Lone Scherfig’s 2014 thriller The Riot Club. And it doesn’t help that many onscreen Oxbridge depictions are period pieces (Tolkien, Testament of Youth and An Education).
None of those films accurately represent the rite-of-passage messiness of contemporary university life. Which is a shame, as there’s so much filmmakers could mine from this coming-of-age experience. When will we see students using milk as a mixer because their housemate forgot to go to the shop and pick up 49p lemonade? Where are the arts students who go north armed with rizlas and a Carhartt jacket in the hope of becoming the next Liam Gallagher?
To be fair, we have had a taste of this on TV. Normal People went some way to showing us the highs and (mostly) lows of uni parties (albeit ones set in Ireland, not Britain). Channel 4’s Big Boys satisfyingly illustrates the painfully embarrassing interactions of freshers’ week. Appreciation must also be paid to Fresh Meat for being perhaps the only genuinely authentic example of British university life onscreen. Following six housemates during their time at a fictional uni in Manchester, the show accurately depicts everything from sordid nights out and failed exams, to the awkward first cuppas with strangers you’ll now be sharing a kitchen sink with.
Yet, while Saltburn gives us the Home Counties posh boy via Jacob Elordi, depictions of British uni life on the big screen are harder to find. Perhaps films about Leeds students getting stoned and bingeing Selling Sunset lack the spectacle of our American cousins. There’s a chance, too, that the Oxbridge-set films we do see are thanks to the the class divide of the British film industry (lest we forget Saltburn was made by a filmmaker whose 18th birthday was featured in Tatler).
Either way, it’s about time British students were given the big screen treatment – sans Oxford robes. It’s a formative time in our lives, ripe for drama, comedy and romance. We’ve seen enough formal dinners and Bullingdon Club debauchery. Point the camera at some grotty student halls instead – you’re certain to see some spectacle there.