Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Movie and DVD Reviews: The best and not-so-best movies available on DVD, and whatever else catches my eye.

Mimsy Review: The Ruling Class

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 24, 2002

“Nothing like a good English breakfast. Big meal of the day for the governor. Always read the Times through first. In case there was anything too disturbing in it. Mother never knew what the word Socialist meant until she was past fifty.”

Special features

Commentary Track7
Home Movies4
Photo Gallery3

When Jack’s aunt asks him how he knows he’s God, Jack replies, “Simple. When I pray I find I’m talking to myself.”

RecommendationRent Soon!
DirectorPeter Medak
WriterPeter Barnes
Movie Rating9
Transfer Quality7
Overall Rating8
  • Enhanced Widescreen
The Ruling Class (Castle): The Ruling Class scene (Castle)

Jack thinks he’s God—Jesus Christ to be specific. Everyone else thinks he’s the fourteenth Earl of Gurney, crazy heir to the incredible Gurney estate, and a Lord of the Realm. Craziness is understood in such a family. Acting like you’re God is expected. Hanging yourself in a ballet skirt every day before dinner is just your way of unwinding. But calling yourself God is not acceptable.

“We were once the rulers of the greatest empire the world has ever known.”

Warning: Do not read the back of the box until after you see the movie! It tells you the ending, which is supposed to be a surprise. I can understand why movie companies that don’t care about their movies can do this to such movies as “Planet of the Apes” or “The Usual Suspects”. They just don’t care. But Criterion should know better.

The Gurney family has almost died out: the thirteenth Earl of Gurney will soon remarry, to a young actress, knowing that he needs an heir and that his current heir is not up to snuff. Too artistic. There shouldn’t have been any problem: he had three brothers, but they all died in various overseas wars and other undertakings before producing an heir of their own. So he has to get married to a beautiful young actress. It’s a tough life, being an earl.

“Not one of them buried in England. Never seen their graves.”

“You can do that on your honeymoon.”

But the Earl dies under less than ideal circumstances, and the fourteenth Earl of Gurney misses the funeral because he thinks he’s Jesus, and couldn’t get away from the asylum.

“His lordship is a paranoid schizophrenic.”

“Paranoid schizophrenic? But he’s a Gurney!”

“Then he’s a paranoid schizophrenic Gurney, who believes he’s god.”

“But we’ve always been Church of England!”

The trick for the rest of the family is to find a way out of the will while keeping the estate in the family (if the will is in any way contested, the entire estate will be given to charity). The trick for Jack, the fourteenth Earl, is to remain crazy but keep the estate.

The Ruling Class (Suit): The Ruling Class scene (Suit)

Jack’s psychiatrist is a German with a (possibly fake) fencing scar. He wants a grant for research into cures for schizophrenia. Jack’s cousin wants into parliament, and a crazy cousin doesn’t help. At least, not the wrong kind of crazy.

The Ruling Class” is a sharp, not at all kind-hearted, jab at the English aristocracy. But it also jabs at the servants and the voters who put up with them, even enjoy their rapacious idiosyncracies. And even a little at us for enjoying it. There is a wonderful scene where Jack, to prove that he is God, “raises” a table “ten feet into the air”. Everyone’s eyes rise as he raises his arms. The music tells us, the viewers, that the table is rising. The servant cries out that he sees it. “It’s a bloody miracle!” But we never see it actually happen. Is it Faith or Gullibility that lets us believe it rises? Or is it a desire to believe that our masters truly are better than we are, and worthy to rule over us?

A similar scene from a different angle is when the “lower class” wife expects to be served at breakfast—where the upper class members of the family know better and get their food from the sideboard.

I don’t know what the name “Grace Shelley” was supposed to mean. A dig at Grace Kelley (who was also an actress who married into nobility, after all)? It sounds like a drag queen’s name.

The movie is vaguely a musical, but the music is ‘real’ in the sense that except possibly for one song at the end, the characters know they are singing and it is part of reality (when the Earl starts singing about bones towards the ending, everyone else is nervous—as they would be if a colleague suddenly broke into song). There are only a few songs and all but the last are quite hilarious and unexpected when they happen. I personally find it wonderful, but it can apparently be disconcerting for some. I suspect they’re just surprised and annoyed that they’ve been enjoying a musical.

The Ruling Class (Alistair): The Ruling Class scene (Alistair)

Money or faith, which is more important?

The commentary with the three Peters (O’Toole, Medak, and Barnes) is very good, but I’m pretty sure that it was spliced together from separate commentaries. They don’t seem to be in the same room together (O’Toole and Medak might be). They are clearly talking about the movie as they are watching it, however, discussing specific scenes and why things happened like that, and even what was going through their minds. Peter Barnes, the writer, especially gives us insight into why he chooses to place musical pieces into a movie that really isn’t a musical.

“The reason I use them [songs] is that there comes a time in a scene where the pressure, the emotional pressure, makes language inadequate, and the only thing the characters can do is either sing or dance.”

Peter O’Toole remembers some of the interactions between the actors, such as the contests that determined who would pay for dinner.

The movie is funny, and it is a comedy, but it’s also extremely serious. Peter O’Toole’s character truly is schizophrenic, and painfully so. Reality hurts him.

The DVD itself is very good. One nice touch: watch the castle light up slowly in the opening menu.

The chapter selection has no fancy bits to it at all—but what it does have is eight chapters at a time, which is very nice. It is a lot easier to find a desired chapter than on fancier discs where chapters are shown four, three or even two at a time.

The Ruling Class (Lunacy): The Ruling Class scene (Lunacy)

The Master in Lunacy looks like he should heal himself first.

The stills gallery, from the director’s personal collection, are not particularly interesting. Mostly close-ups of the actors. About 170 images, not organized at all. (If you want number 100, you have to skip through the previous 100. If you want number 170, you have to skip through the previous 170; it doesn’t wrap around, at least for me.) The images of the dead scene makeup were good, and there were a few interesting shots of the cameramen trying to get a good angle.

The trailer is just plain bad. It’s interesting, historically, to see how the trailer-makers in a film company tried to present a film like “The Ruling Class” to the general public.

And there are some 16mm silent home movies made by director Peter Medak. No menu to choose from, interesting, but not really any information in it. (Interestingly, while silent, it has two English channels.) It is somewhat fun to see the bishop (Alastair Sim) playing cricket. Apparently ineptly, although I don’t know enough about cricket to be sure. Maybe you’re supposed to continually miss the ball with the bat thingie. Also, some more shots of the special effects in the dead scene.

The picture quality is very good—as you would expect from a Criterion release—although there are sparklies throughout, especially over dark backgrounds—as you would expect from a movie this old and this non-mainstream. The colors are bright where they need to be, and dingy where the English weather requires it.

This is a movie I recommend to everyone. It’s an underappreciated movie that will be remembered over time. Because of the price, you may wish to rent it first, but if you like biting British comedies, just save the rental price and purchase the thing.

Recommendation: Rent Soon!

DirectorPeter Medak
WriterPeter Barnes
ActorsPeter O’Toole, Alastair Sim
Spoken languageEnglish
Special FeaturesCommentary Track, Home Movies, Photo Gallery, Trailer
More links

If you enjoyed The Ruling Class…

For more about English, you might also be interested in The Life of Brian and Wallace & Gromit.

For more about madhouse, you might also be interested in Amadeus, King of Hearts, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.