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The Ruling Class

Self-mocking humor is a national pastime in Great Britain, where the class system and British eccentricities are rich fodder for ridicule. The likes of Benny Hill, the Black Adder, and those masters of mockery, Monty Python, have made a tradition of lampooning the descendants of a once-powerful British aristocracy — descendants that steadfastly hold to their belief in a sense of entitlement to wealth and power. Peter Medak's 1972 farce The Ruling Class takes an irreverent and comically dark look into the corrupt world of these blue-blooded poseurs, who spend their days living off the riches of their dead relatives while fretting about their social standing. With a screenplay by Peter Barnes (from his own stage play), the film is a funny, sometimes brutal send-up of the English upper class and the fine line that can exist between acceptable eccentricity and out-and-out insanity. Peter O'Toole heads a superb cast that features several of England's most distinguished theater actors of the time, including Alastair Sim, Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews, and Coral Browne. As the film opens, we see the 13th Earl of Gurney (Andrews) making a patriotic speech to a group of stuffy old British gentlemen, extolling the virtues of noble England. By day the Earl is a criminal judge, but at night he likes to take to his room, don a ballet tutu, and mock-hang himself. But when he accidentally does hang himself, his hanger-on relatives quickly begin jockeying for position in an effort to secure their current lifestyle — namely, living off the Earl. But the Earl has left his estate to his erratic son Jack (O'Toole), a self-committed paranoid schizophrenic living in a local sanitarium. When Jack returns to take his position as the 14th Earl of Gurney, he arrives Christ-like, with long robes and flowing hair, preaching a message of love and professing to be the one true God. Jack even brings his own giant crucifix to his new home, mounting it to hang from in times of stress, or simply using it as a place to take a nap. Of course, Jack is a self-indulgent adolescent in a man's body, but he's also someone who was never loved and who desperately seeks normalcy . But it all comes as a bit of surprise to his aunt, the Lady Claire (Browne), and uncle, Sir Charles (William Mervyn), who had hoped to gain the Earl's fortune for themselves. Faced with either ingratiating themselves to their crazy nephew or finding a way to get him locked up permanently, the ever-scheming Sir Charles cooks up a plot to get Jack married, in the hopes that the union will produce a son; then Charles will have Jack committed and take over as guardian of the infant heir. In the meantime, Jack's psychiatrist (Michael Bryant) has his own plan to cure Jack of his schizophrenia, but it soon backfires and leads to a rather unpleasant case of, er — murder.

*          *          *

With The Ruling Class, director Medak creates organized chaos via a daring approach to the material. In his audio commentary on the DVD, he explains that — using a combination of theatrical settings and movie fantasy — he wanted the viewer to get a sense of Jack's mindset, which fades in and out of reality. Scenarist Barnes fleshes out each character down to the smallest of eccentricities, and his marvelous dialogue gives significance to each situation. Scenes of high drama are accompanied by outrageous hilarity, and sometimes lead into characters bursting into song and dance. But throughout, the characters remain precisely British, seemingly unaffected by the inanity of it all. O'Toole, holding center stage, is brilliant as Jack, shifting in scene after scene from lighthearted innocence to outright craziness, and eventually from overwhelming pathos to evil cunning. When asked how he knows he is God, Jack replies "The voices of Saint Francis, Socrates, General Gordon, and Timothy Leary all told me I was God. If I only knew then who I was now!" Criterion's Ruling Class DVD offers a longer cut of the film than normally seen in North America, with more than 30 minutes of deleted scenes — as such, longtime fans will want to seek it out. Additionally, the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) offers a generally good source print, with only a small amount of color desaturation in some exterior scenes (the English manor where the exteriors were shot is a spectacular setting, and the indoor sets are equally magnificent in their grandeur, adding a wonderful oversized quality that further illustrates the insignificance of the characters). Audio is presented in the original mono (as DD 1.0), although there is some ambient noise. And as can be expected from Criterion, the supplements are useful. A commentary with Medak, O'Toole, and Barnes offers interesting reminiscences about their experiences working on the film. Also included are some silent "home movies" Medak shot in and around the estate and in the House of Lords, no less than 200 still photos from Medak's collection, and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Kerry Fall

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