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The Menu review – Ralph Fiennes holds court in a macabre but muddled thriller

Funny and deliciously cruel, though not particularly sharp in its satire, Mark Mylod's horror-comedy is best when at its darkest

Hewn into a rock face, made up of all sharp angles and glass, and sat right in the middle of an island that somehow looks simultaneously abundant and desolate, the restaurant at the heart of The Menu is the absolute keystone to the film working. It’s an incredible location for an often less-than-incredible film, one that elevates this comedy/horror/satire as it slowly but surely becomes a battleground between its ultra-rich clientele and the ever more deranged staff serving them.

Presided over by fearsome perfectionist head chef Joseph Slowik (Ralph Fiennes), this restaurant is The Hawthorn, a truly exclusive dining experience in an undefined spot in America, where the menu is set for 12 diners at a time, all of whom pay $1,250 for the privilege, “privilege” being the dominant word. The group of diners we meet has been specially selected by Slowik for a devilish menu that will end up punishing them for their wealth and greed, from a one-percenter who hires prostitutes that look like his daughter to a trio of Wall Street frat bros who have been embezzling money.

The odd ones out here are Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), a true believer in Slowik’s molecular gastronomy, and his date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a non-foodie serving as a last-minute replacement for Tyler’s intended guest. As the night moves from odd and confrontational food to an immaculately-planned bloodbath at the expense of the patrons, it’s Margot who proves to be the fly in Slowik’s soup, her presence (and working-class origins) unaccounted for in his scheme.

The Menu moves at a good clip, and it’s not long before everything’s going to hell. This keeps things fun and lively, though it is often at the expense of really being able to invest in the characters. Fiennes naturally holds court well, and Hoult stands out with the film’s funniest performance, Tyler’s fanboyish toadying for Slowik carrying on throughout the carnage, but most of the rest of the cast get lost in the shuffle. Taylor-Joy is the ostensible lead here, and she does a good line in using a furious façade to hide deeper fear, but her arc has a few missed beats in the writing, which dampen the performance as a whole.

With director Mark Mylod and co-writer Will Tracy both Succession veterans and other writer Seth Reiss hailing from iconic satirical news site The Onion, you might expect The Menu to be some sort of biting satire of the super-rich. To be fair, that is largely what it has been sold as (“eat the rich” is about as marketable a slogan as they come), but the political cuts here are shallow and far from the first thing on the film’s mind.

Its satire is more reserved for the behind the scenes of fine dining, of a team of people buying in totally to insane, avant-garde food concepts and the insane hours required to realise these dreams. It’s undeniably cult-like, and it’s when tapping into this that The Menu is on its surest footing, diving into the horror of being trapped in a madhouse where you’re the only non-believer. Mylod and the writing duo wring laughs and terror out of the situation, heaping cruel twists upon the guests as the full extent of The Hawthorn’s derangement is revealed.

It’s a refreshing approach to a story that could easily have gone for more tired and hackneyed tropes, but it does make it hard to care. On one side of this war are crass multi-millionaires, on the other a bunch of gourmand lunatics – whoever loses, the rest of the world wins. A couple of set-pieces stir the blood, but it’s only when The Menu is going for cruelly dark laughs (one particular scene with Hoult is a masterfully macabre delight) that it really earns its Michelin stars.

The Menu was screened as part of the 2022 BFI Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on 18 November.

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