Observant readers of this weblog may have noticed that I like films. Actually, I love films. All sorts, all time periods, genres, all quality. But very few films obsess me. ‘The Ruling Class’ is one of them. Released in 1972, the film is two and a half hours long and is set almost entirely at the luxurious country seat of the Gurneys, an ancient aristocratic family of eccentrics. When the incumbent Earl accidentally kills himself during a session of auto-erotic-asphyxiation, Jack, his heir, is recalled from a ‘retreat’ to take over the title and the running of the estate. The problem with Jack, however, is that the ‘retreat’ is actually an asylum, and the fourteenth Earl is utterly insane.
|'Call me J.C'|
Peter O’Toole plays Jack, and is quite amazing. It’s a theatrical performance (the whole production clearly shows its origins as a successful play), but some of the technical things he does are incredible. In the first half, as he flounces around with his Jesus haircut and beard and making numerous puns about divinity he strikes a benign, sympathetic figure. For a short while, he even manages to convince the viewer that perhaps he isn’t mad (or is only as mad as the rest of his oddball family), until he botches a demonstration miracle and suddenly seems a rather pathetic, delusional madman.
In an attempt to cure him, his psychiatrist stages a meeting with another lunatic with a God complex, McKyle ‘the Electric Messiah’. The idea is that two objects cannot occupy the same space, so one of the ‘Gods’ must be false. The aggressive McKyle overpowers gentle Jack who appears to make a return to normality after the confrontation: in actual fact, the quiet paranoid schizophrenic who thought he was the God of Love has now become a dangerous psychopath who thinks he is Jack the Ripper. From here on in, things get really disconcerting.
|The Electric Messiah.|
O’Toole’s second characterisation is brilliantly realised: he shaves his beard, cuts his hair, his eyes harden, his face becomes cruel, but he looks normal, he acts normal, even getting himself declared officially sane by ‘The Lunatic General’ (ironically played by the perennially barking Graham Crowden). There is a scene when he is left alone in the grounds of the estate and begins to rant and rave incoherently, violently overtaken by his psychosis. It’s terrifying, and we immediately know that things will not end well.
|Working Class Fox.|
An attack on all things establishment, ‘The Ruling Class’ takes noblesse oblige to its ultimate limits, suggesting that even a clearly insane murderer can prosper if they have a title and the right connections (Jack passes Crowden's 'mad' test mainly because they both went to Eton). Full of musical interludes and odd moments, the film is very stagey (and very long), but, for me, is a fascinating, sprawling exercise in satire, driven by a great cast and a commanding central performance from O’Toole.
Very funny, extremely disturbing, absolutely intriguing. I’ve watched it dozens of times, and will watch it dozens of times more. One day, if I don’t go insane, I might get to the bottom of it.