The Ruling Class (****)

Posted on October 31st, 2009 in Engineerboy,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy
Jesus Christ, it's the 14th Earl of Gurney!

Jesus Christ, it's the 14th Earl of Gurney!

I am amazed that I had never heard of this film until very recently.  We watched it last night (via Netflix Watch Instantly), and it was one of the most profoundly absurd, amusing, and disturbing films I’ve ever seen.  If you think you may one day have any plans to see it, my advice is to stop reading reviews right now, and come back after you’ve seen it.

Part of the power of this film is that it starts out as what feels like a quirky little comedy, then evolves into a sort of absurdist satire of the English class system, takes a turn into the blackest of black comedy, and then…well…let’s just say that the longer you watch the stranger it gets, until the end when it will elicit from the viewer an involuntary “WTF?!?”, whether one likes the film or not.

And we liked it, very much.  Well, as much as a disturbing move can be liked, that is.  However, I wouldn’t give it a blanket recommendation to every potential viewer, because it’s just so…bizarre.  I’ll put it this way, if you think that a film that is sort of a combination of Eraserhead, Monty Python, A Clockwork Orange, Murder by Death, and Jesus Christ: Superstar sounds intriguing, then this might be a film for you.

The key ingredient that allows this film’s radical elements to coalesce into a near-masterpiece is the transcendent performance of Peter O’Toole, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (losing to Marlon Brando in The Godfather).  He enters the film sporting both the appearance of, and belief that he is, Jesus Christ.  When asked how he knows that he is God, he responds, “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.”

If you find that quote witty and sublime, you might enjoy this film.  If you find it blasphemous and/or offensive then you may want to skip this movie altogether, because it only gets worse (or better, depending on one’s perspective) from there.  In another example, while reciting his marriage vows he promises to love his bride “…from the bottom of my soul to the tip of my penis.”  Again, if you think you could find that line funny in the proper context, this might be a film you would enjoy.

The basic storyline is that, after his father’s (jaw dropping) death, Jack (Peter O’Toole) returns to inherit his vast estate and title as the 14th Earl of Gurney.  Jack has spent the last few years in and out of asylums, as he is quite mad, but his powerful father would never allow him to be committed, as that would bring shame and disgrace on the family name.  Jack’s surviving relatives begrudge him the inheritance, and so plot and scheme to take control away from him.

That could be the synopsis for a benign and forgettable English parlor dramedy, but it merely provides the framework around which a surreal story unfolds.  If the description of the film thus far hasn’t given you a clear idea of what to expect, I’ll add that, at any moment, in any context, and in any combination, the characters of this film are prone to breaking out into song and dance numbers, which is normally one of my least favorite things in a film, but here it serves to ratchet up the lunacy to ever more scarifying heights.

I won’t share any more of the plot, but I will reiterate that this film will most definitely *not* be for everyone, and I don’t mean that in the “some of you aren’t cool/hip enough to get this film” sort of way, I mean it in the truest sense of the words.  I believe that most viewers will either love the film or hate it, with very little middle ground – think of an exotic dish prepared with unfamiliar spices and ingredients, with a distinctive and powerfully unique taste and texture.  Some will love it, others will hate it, and neither are “right” or “wrong”, it’s just a matter of taste and preference.

But, if you are intrigued by the prospect of a film that is absurd, engaging, dark, surreal, funny, musical, and tragic, then you may want to put The Ruling Class on your Halloween movie list.

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