This year has given us some excellent on-screen depictions of life behind the pass. First up, Boiling Point – the one-take wonder starring Stephen Graham – shone a light on the tensions and tirades that can take place in the high-pressure environment of a professional kitchen. The film was so popular, it’s since been picked up to continue as a series. More recently, everyone’s been hooked by Disney’s The Bear, where a chef at the most decorated restaurant in the world must return home to take over his family’s failing establishment following the death of his brother. Mixing tension with black comedy, it shows the mental toll that rattling pans can have on chefs. Now, The Menu has been directed by Mark Mylod – the executive producer on the first three seasons of Succession – and produced by Adam McKay, also of Succession and Netflix’s Don’t Look Up, a satirical look at the end of the world. This pairing should give audiences an indication of where darkly funny The Menu takes its viewers.
The film focuses on couple Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult, The Great). The pair has travelled to a tiny island in the Pacific Northwest to eat at exclusive, highly awarded restaurant, Hawthorn. From the off, it’s clear this is Tyler’s treat. He’s a culinary obsessive who thinks he knows far more about fine dining than he does. He namedrops fancy kitchen gadgets and insists on taking sneaky photos on his phone, even though Hawthorn doesn’t allow photography. He tells Margot off for smoking before the meal, saying it will ruin her palate. She is an outlier among the guests at Hawthorn, as while she’s joined Tyler as his date for the meal, she’s not Tyler’s original plus one on the booking, which irritates the maitre d’, Elsa (Hong Chau). By the time this admin error has been spotted, Margot is already on the island, and so she’s ushered through.
On arrival, the guests are taken on a tour of the island, from the shoreline that yields Hawthorn’s prized seafood, to the farm, into a meat-aging hangar and even though the confined staff quarters, where Elsa explains they all live together for months at a time. Once inside the churchlike Hawthorn, reclusive chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes, Schindler's List) talks his chosen guests through that evening’s lavish tasting menu. Hosted by the immaculately dressed front of house staff and the cultish brigade of chefs, the evening unfolds with increasing tension as secrets are revealed and unexpected courses are served. With each new plate of food, increasingly wild and violent events occur and Slowik’s motivation begins to rattle the diners as it becomes apparent that his elaborate menu is designed to end in a shocking finale.
Margot and Tyler aren’t the only diners. Lillian Bloom, played by Janet McTeer (Ozark), is a well-recognised food critic with an inflated ego whose reviews can make or break a chef’s career. She has a history with Slowik, who she claims to have discovered, and is joined for the meal by her editor Ted (Paul Adelstein), who agrees with everything she says. An unnamed film star – played by John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge!) – is recognised by everyone in the restaurant. He is at Hawthorn as he’s hoping to revive his failed acting career by hosting a travel food show. He is accompanied by Felicity, his assistant, played by Aimee Carrero (The Offer), who is desperate to quit.
Then there’s Richard and Anne, played by Reed Birney (Mass) and Judith Light (tick, tick... BOOM!), a wealthy older couple who have dined at Hawthorn multiple times. Although they are regulars, the pair don’t seem to remember their previous experiences of Slowik’s cuisine. Also dining are Bryce, Soren and Dave, a group of obnoxious tech bros played by Rob Yang (Succession), Arturo Castro (Broad City) and Mark St. Cyr (Marshall). The trio work for Doug Varick, an investor who owns Hawthorn, which gives them an added sense of privilege – and a huge expense account.
Taylor-Joy always elevates anything she’s in – it’s hard to imagine The Queen’s Gambit, Last Night in Soho and Emma without her – and the same goes here. At first, Margot is puzzlingly disinterested in Slowik’s food and shows contempt for the overly precious presentation of the dishes – much to Tyler’s horror. But as the film progresses, a compelling dynamic unfolds between Margot – who isn’t meant to be there – and Slowik. Her arrival disrupts the chef’s laser-focused vision for the evening – and leads the intricately planned dinner in a fresh direction.
As the film progresses, each course reveals a new aspect of the story, taking the viewers on an unexpected adventure along with Hawthorn’s guests. As a satirical thriller, The Menu is dark and unnerving – but manages to be fun too. We don’t want to say too much – like a tasting menu at a top restaurant, sometimes it’s best going into it knowing as little as possible to savour the surprise. What we will say is that we came away feeling satisfied and wanting to dissect the plot at length with friends around the dinner table. We can’t think of much higher praise than that.
The Menu is in cinemas from 18th November.
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