Loved ‘Saltburn’? Here’s some more films that tap into the dark academia aesthetic

Emerald Fennel's second feature gave us an insight into the kinds of characters that lurk at the depths of Britain's prestigious institutions, and it left us wanting more. 

Saltburn gave us lots of things: Rosamund Pike in a career best performance, some light satire of the British upper classes, and Barry Koeghan having a Call Me By Your Name peach moment with some bathwater. But it also tapped into what is apparently a cultural obsession with dark academia; an aesthetic championing Oxbridge, the arts, classic literature, and all the moody interiors and clothes that come with it. Of course, it’s left us itching for more, so we’ve rounded up the best dark academia films to fill the void.

Cruel Intentions (1999)

In cult classic Cruel Intentions, a baby-faced slew of a-list actors come together to create one of the most smutty and sexy entries into dark academia genre. Loosely based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the film follows step-siblings Sebastian (Ryan Philippe) and Katherine (Sarah Michelle Gellar) as they devise a sordid wager around taking the virginity of Annette (Reese Witherspoon). Filled with 90s tunes, an iconic necklace that continues to make the rounds on Etsy, as well as lots of moments that err on being incest, Cruel Intentions is not just wildly entertaining, but a great insight into the sordid lives of the elite.

The Riot Club (2014)

Starring Sam Claflin, Max Irons and Douglas Booth, Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club follows the dirty exploits that take place at the eponymous all-male, exclusive dining club at the University of Oxford. While the film’s writer Laura Wade has asserted that The Riot Club is entirely fictitious, many have noted that the film’s content bears a striking resemblance to Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, who’s former members include none other than David Cameron and Boris Johnson. And though Bullingdon Club isn’t the home of #piggate (that would another of Oxford’s seedy secret societies) it wouldn’t be a stretch to say what’s featured in The Riot Club is certainly #piggate adjacent…

The Goldfinch (2019)

While we haven’t had the pleasure of a film adaptation of The Secret History, we do have The Goldfinch, which charts the life of Theodore Decker after the death of his mother in a terrorist attack. With a pre-cancelled Ansel Elgort at the helm, John Crowley’s rendition of The Goldfinch takes us on an odyssey through all those old reliables of dark academia genre. Taken into care by an elite New York family called the Barbours, Theodore is encouraged to pursue his interest in antiques and the arts, all the while becoming increasingly embroiled in his drug addiction.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

It wouldn’t be a list of dark academia films without Dead Poets Society. Peter Weir’s coming of age drama (starring a similarly baby-faced cohort of actors) follows a group of students at a conservative New England boarding school that are taken under the wing of their poetry teacher (Robin Williams). Filled to the brim with the scenery and grey-toned uniforms that make dark academia such an irresistible aesthetic, Dead Poets Society is not only a firm favourite within the genre, but a film that completely transcends it.

Maurice (1987)

Featuring Hugh Grant in one of his lesser-known roles, James Ivory’s Maurice follows the eponymous Maurice (James Wilby) as he joins Cambridge University in 1909 and begins an intense love affair with the wealthy Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). Given the less-than-subtle queer undertones of Emerald Fennel’s second film, Maurice might actually be your best bet when it comes to filling that Saltburn-shaped hole. You might even think of Saltburn as Maurice‘s dirtier, naughtier spiritual successor.

The Falling (2014)

Taking place at a strict English girls’ boarding school in 1969, Carol Morley’s The Falling follows Lydia Lamont (Maisie Williams) and the events that follows after her best friend Abbie (a pre-fame Florence Pugh) dies during a mysterious fainting spell. As is the nature of the real-life institutions that inspired them, dark academic films are somewhat male dominated. For that reason, The Falling is somewhat of a welcome change.

WriterAmber Rawlings