Insanity is the watchword when discussing the British satirical film The Ruling Class, adapted for the screen by Peter Barnes from his play of the same name and starring the incomparable Peter O’Toole. (Completing the purely coincidental Peter troika, the film was directed by Peter Medak.) Not only is insanity the subject of The Ruling Class, insanity is the best possible explanation for the existence of the picture. Surely, no reasonable person could have imagined success would flow from a project brimming with rude jabs at the moneyed caste of English society, quasi-sacrilegious jokes at the expense of Christianity, and surreal song-and-dance interludes. To describe this as risky material is to make a gross understatement, since The Ruling Class has something to offend—or at least completely bewilder—nearly everyone.
Set largely on a British estate, the story begins when the 13th Earl of Gurney, Ralph Gurney (Harry Andrews), commits suicide in spectacular fashion. A ballerina’s tutu, a military uniform, and autoerotic self-asphyxiation are involved. After Ralph’s death, control of the Gurney estate falls to Jack Gurney (O’Toole), who has spent much of his life in psychiatric institutions. A flamboyant narcissist who thinks he’s God and tends to express himself through musical performance, Jack is so unambiguously crazy that he makes seemingly easy prey for Sir Charles (William Mervyn), a relative scheming to declare Jack unstable and thereby seize control of the family empire. Unfortunately for Sir Charles, Jack proves more formidable than expected.
Furthermore, Sir Charles’ machinations are complicated by the strict requirements of English upper-class decorum, and that’s where the strongest elements of Barnes’ satire emerge. While far from subtle, Barnes’ strategy is to skewer a strata of people so entitled they consider deviation from social norms an inalienable right. In other words, nothing a nobleman or noblewoman does is wrong by dint of the fact that “the ruling class” has limitless largesse.
Using this narrative framework as a license to play, Barnes (and, by extension, Medak) lets loose with myriad strange scenes. For instance, Jack spends part of the movie in full Jesus drag, delivering imperious dialogue from the cross on which he mimics crucifixion. Yet Barnes doesn’t allow The Ruling Class to float completely into the ether of anything-goes chaos, because he grounds the story—somewhat—with easily recognizable conflicts including Sir Charles’ battle for supremacy and Jack’s theological debates with Bishop Lampton (Alistair Sim), an elderly clergyman who finds Jack’s antics maddening.
Judged by conventional criteria, The Ruling Class is an overindulgent freakshow, sprawling across two and a half hours. Taken on its own terms, however, the movie is strangely beguiling, especially because O’Toole attacks the main role with such vigor. In fact, one could easily complain that O’Tool demonstrates too much vigor, since his flouncing and screaming and speechifying gets a bit overwhelming after a while. But then again, those with a low threshold for grandstanding should give The Ruling Class a wide berth, anyway—this one’s all about the more-is-more aesthetic. Everyone involved in The Ruling Class seems to revel in the irony of filling a grand house suited for restrained comportment with deranged excess.
The Ruling Class: FREAKY