Not so very long ago, Ken and Lisi Russell ran into Peter Medak at a film festival and were startled to find the director apologizing that his 1972 masterpiece The Ruling Class wasn’t “better than it is.” I’m not sure how this astonishing film version of Peter Barnes’ 1968 play could have been better. Wisely retaining the theatrical nature of the play—it simply doesn’t lend itself to naturalism—Medak approached the film with a tendency toward long takes with a mobile camera. This not only preserves the feel of theater, but it makes the cuts and close-ups really stand out when they do occur. But what exactly is The Ruling Class? Well, the easiest way of describing this genre-defying work is to call it a black-comedy-musical-fantasy-horror film—or as Peter O’Toole described it, “a comedy with tragic relief.” The plot primarily concerns the efforts of his family to get the loony (he thinks he’s Jesus Christ) 14th Earl of Gurney (O’Toole) married, so that he can produce a male heir—the upshot being that he can then be put away. Working against this plan is another plan to try to “make his Lordship sane like the rest of us” (a debatable assessment). And that’s only the first act of the play. What starts as comedy—albeit comedy with a sharp edge born of the writer’s loathing of the upper classes—turns into something much darker and dangerous and finally disturbing as it reworks the old adage that people get the government they deserve to encompass the idea that maybe they also get the religion they deserve. Bold, brilliant and wildly irreverent, with what may well be the finest performance Peter O’Toole ever gave.
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