Title: The Ruling Class
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Peter Medak
Writer: Peter Barnes
Music: John Cameron
Cinematography: Ken Hodges
A very dark and farcical comedy recounts a lunatic’s rising in the British ruling class, it is an adaptation of Peter Barnes’ stage play. Jack Gurney (O’Toole) is a paranoid schizophrenic man lived in asylum for 8 years, who thinks he is Jesus Christ, the funny thing is that he is also the sole heir of his accidentally self-asphyxiated father, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Andrews), and to inherit the peerage, his return to his family villa does hinder his vile uncle Sir Charles’ (Mervyn) plan to take possession of the family estates.
Jack, who advocates to bring love and charity to the world, affectionately claims “believe in me in loving goodness” while anything unsavoury is “put into his galvanised pressure cooker and disappears”, but in they eyes of Dr. Herder (Bryant), Jack’s psychiatrist, he is a nutcase with a delusion of grandeur. While he deploys all the experimental methods to cure him, Sir Charles has his own plan to get the possession of the property, he marries off his mistress Grace (Seymour), who actually was going to marry Jack’s father, to Jack and hopes they produce an heir, then he can fittingly put his nephew into an institution, so he can acquire the power.
Wantonly, things don’t go that way, though Jack successfully marries Grace, the ceremony is presided by bishop Lampton (Sim), whose predicament to officiate Jesus’ matrimony is side-splitting to watch, and Grace delivers a son shortly. But Dr. Herder’s persistence, partly incensed by Charles’ wife Lady Claire (Browne), who sides with Jack to get redress for Charles’ infidelity, finally works, a face-to-face encounter with another mad man McKyle (Green) who also believes himself to be Christ in a thunderous night miraculously cures Jack (with a little help from an imaginative gorilla in tuxedo), or not? Anyway, everyone is convinced Jack is back to normal, only his sporadic stuttering which Jack exerts himself to hide suggests otherwise.
The film runs about 154 minutes, an unusual length for a play-turned-film, in the third act, Jack fancies himself as the notorious Jack the Ripper, therefore the film tones down its lighthearted and musical leitmotif and starkly mutates into a murderous drama, until the stirring end of a zombie parliament and Grace’s shrilling scream. The tonal shift is deviant (particularly when characters precipitately start singing and dancing without any cinematic cues) but it does thrust a sharp-edged dagger into the putrid aristocracy rank and the top tier decision-makers, but Barnes’ pungent script doesn’t leave anyone else unscathed, the loyal but verbally transgressed butler Tucker (Lowe) is passed off as a whipping boy for the murder; the gold-digger Grace cannot win her husband’s heart no matter how tantalising her striptease is; more jarringly, Dr. Herder, a foreigner deeply believes in his scientific methodology, fails to grasp the situation and is driven mad by the appalling fact. There is dark humour galore, but so is the unbridled disdain towards the mundane sanity.
This is one of Peter O’Toole’s 8 Oscar-nominated performances, and it is not just a worthy one, in my book, he should win, it is the kind of physically taxing and mentally exhausting prototype which can daunt any Shakespearian thespian, but Mr. O’Toole is wholeheartedly invested in the before-and-after changeover, ranges from extremes like explosively maniac to perturbingly merciless, not counting his solemn imitation of Christ, constantly puts audience in a weird position doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
This ensemble piece is consummated with a handful impressive supporting performances from Lowe, Sim, Browne, Seymour and Bryant, each adds their own flair to this larger-than-life and outlandish tall tale. As for the still-working director Peter Medak, browsing through his later career, his third feature might be his best,
The most indelible line, also featured on the movie’s poster, is when asked how he had decided that he was God, Jack nonchalantly replies, “I found that whenever I prayed to God, I was talking to myself.” And Dr. Herder should have realised that no sanity can be induced from that axiomatic logic.