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  • Benjamin May

The Ruling Class (1972) Review

After the 13th Earl of Gurney succumbs to a fatal autoerotic asphyxiation incident, his mentally unbalanced son Jack inherits his position in the aristocracy. Jack, believing himself to be Jesus Christ incarnate, pledges to use his family's wealth and influence for the good of mankind. His philanthropic ideals displease his relatives, who plot to oust Jack from the estate so they can continue to enjoy the quality of life to which they'd grown accustomed. For everyone involved, however, things will get increasingly complex, as Jack's unhinged psyche is near breaking point; and his family's machinations may just push him over the edge.


Based on Peter Barnes' play of the same name, 'The Ruling Class' is a wildly amusing, madcap movie. Directed by Peter Medak- and with a screenplay from Barnes himself- the film shows us a comedic portrait of a man fully enveloped by madness, while skewering the British class system in a sharp, entertaining way.

Combining broad comedy with barbed, witty dialogue- as well as a dose of gallows humor- the film is sure to make you laugh. In the latter half, there is a tonal shift, and 'The Ruling Class' gets considerably darker; but is no less enjoyable. While the continued treatise on the aristocracy does seem a little one-note at times, and some of the jokes fall rather flat; the story is mostly inventive, bizarre and fiendishly witty.


On the technical side of things, 'The Ruling Class' is a mixed bag. Ken Hodges' cinematography isn't awful per se, it's just uninspired; a little drab. There are some fantastic images in the film, but Hodges doesn't capture them much fun or style. Hodges and Medak worked together on Medak's debut feature 'Negatives,' and their collaboration on that project yielded infinitely more interesting and affecting results. Additionally, Ray Lovejoy's editing feels loose and inconsistent, with some scenes going on far too long and others feeling positively brisk in comparison; leaving the pacing erratic and irregular.

Also of issue is John Cameron's overblown score, which is exhaustingly energetic. While there are a couple of effective pieces, his arrangements are the antithesis of subtle work, and they actually rob a few scenes of power and impact. On a more positive note, Ruth Meyers' costume design is striking, with her outfits for Jack being especially notable and grand. Tim Hampton's production design is superb all round, and the locations consistently look marvelous on screen.


'The Ruling Class' boasts a cast that any fan of English movies will go cock-a-hoop over, featuring the likes of Graham Crowden, William Mervyn and Kay Walsh; all performing at the top of their games. Alastair Sim and Arthur Lowe both have small but meaty roles as an eccentric bishop and a butler, and Harry Andrews makes the most of his all too brief scene as the 13th Earl; delighting with his outrageousness. Coral Browne also impresses with her turn as Jack's aunt, a comically duplicitous wench if ever there was one.

Peter O'Toole dominates the movie, though, giving a performance of alarming intensity and boundless comedic skill. As Jack, he is insanity personified, a lunatic of monumental proportions. O'Toole brings the over-the-top role to life so naturally and effortlessly you forget he's acting, and that the man himself hasn't snapped. He carries the film, and it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the part- or, indeed, the film working had he not been cast. It is a towering performance of immense strength and depth that is genuinely unforgettable (and quite frightening, from time to time).


'The Ruling Class' is a terrific movie that combines pointed satire, broad humor and witty dialogue, with results that are sure to please. The film boasts a large cast of talented actors giving it their all, as well as a powerful central performance from Peter O'Toole that is mesmerizing, macabre and memorable. Though 'The Ruling Class' may get a little frantic in places, and the cinematography is nothing to write home about, it is always entertaining and utterly unique: a fabulous, frenzied farce.

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