I’m going to cut straight to the chase here: The Ruling Class is about Peter O’Toole as madman, who thinks he’s Jesus, and then is “cured” into thinking he’s Jack the Ripper. The movie is grand, self-aware, theatrical and divisive, with some critics still convinced it’s disjointed bullshit, and others (including the Criterion Collection) lauding its boldness and artistic vision. Disjointed? Undoubtedly. Brilliant? Absolutely.
One of the great charms of The Ruling Class is its unclassified nature. It exists in an uneasy limbo between comedy and drama– a murder mystery where everybody laughs and a slapstick comedy where everybody cries. It’s divided firmly into two halves, a leftover stage device used to facilitate the absent intermission, and yet it is also distinctly filmic. O’Toole is a beautiful but ultimately pitiful farce of a man; his life is a delusion wrapped in a sad joke. The film is certainly a comment on the British upper class, a not-so-subtle parody of the ruling elite (one film critic called it a “sledgehammer satire”), but the joke has been dulled some with time and distance. Nonetheless, the film’s altogether hilarious and disturbing character study is its true treasure, and is timeless. O’Toole’s Jack is a remarkable dual portrait– an AK-47 of energy on polarized ends of saint and sinner.
The Ruling Class has it all: sex, religion, insanity, murder, musical numbers (yes, full blown, out-of-nowhere musical numbers), politics, assailants in gorilla suits. It throws everything at you mercilessly, eschewing simplicity for bombastic spectacle. And yet, at the heart of it all, is only one man with two halves, the two halves we may find within ourselves if we cared to look– the messiah and the murderer.
Britta R. Moline with Amanda Lust 3/10/12