Fine dining dystopia The Menu is an evening to die for

Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult star in tongue-in-cheek culinary horror The Menu. Stephen A Russell cleanses his palette and tucks into this fine dining dystopia.

It’s pretty easy to see how the pinnacle of fine dining for the super-rich, or those that will aspirationally break the bank for one night at the table, can be spun into a satire so sharp it could cut sashimi from twenty paces. From foams and emulsions that capture an abstract concept like the essence of the sea, to otherwise basic dishes transformed by ‘deconstruction’ into nonsensically theatrical flourishes, there’s plenty about the upper echelons of multiple Michelin-starred restaurants that can be skewered like 150-day matured beef.

Succession producer and writer Will Tracy found himself freaking out in one such joint on a private island in Norway, only approachable by a boat that drops you off and returns once the intricate degustation is done. He could see the potential in feeling trapped in such a gilded cage, pairing with co-writer Seth Reiss to whip up the curly-fried concept.

Plating up The Menu, tautly directed by Succession regular Mark Mylod, he casts an impeccably sneering Ralph Fiennes in full Phantom Thread egomaniac mode as Julian Slowik, the haughty restaurateur and head chef of Hawthorn. Each of Julian’s absurdly finessed morsels has a story, and it soon becomes clear that that overarching narrative somehow involves each of the invitation-only diners present on the night we drop in.

They include an impeccably cast Janet McTeer as Lillian Bloom, the sort of fierce and fiercely valorised New York-style restaurant critic who can make or more often break careers with one pithy putdown. Then there is a trio of incorrigibly corrupt money movers and shakers played by Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. They don’t even care about the dinner and are simply there for the status it confers. Transparent star Judith Light is spot on as the sort of Chanel-clad Upper East Side WASP permanently buzzing around her fusty-suited husband (Reed Birney). They mostly look bored by the effort of being there. John Leguizamo is also great as a faded film star lothario who may or may not be sleeping with his personal assistant (Aimee Carrero). She definitely wants out of the gig either way. And who is the older woman slumped in the corner who seems so out of place?

Anya Taylor-Joy’s Doc Marten and silk dress-wearing Margot is our window into this world of unfettered excess. We come to realise that she’s a last-minute ring-in as the plus one of Nicholas Hoult’s obsessive foodie, Tyler. Tyler is aghast that Margot would risk the precision of her palette by having a fag as they await their private ferry to the island. She’s nonplussed by his feverish fanboy adulation of Julian and desperation to be noticed.

Without giving too much away about what unfolds once they’re all seated in Hawthorn—seriously, go in blind—The Menu is an evening to die for that rapidly takes a turn for the dystopian that’s more Hunger Games than it is about satiating hungry beasts. Carved into sassily intertitled chapters that match the menu, each course steers us closer to Julian’s Machiavellian masterplan. But Margot is a curveball, and it’s a treat to watch the chess manoeuvres that unfold between the star of The Queen’s Gambit and the fabulously po-faced Fiennes. When the mayhem bubbles up to boiling point, Taylor-Joy is more than up to the battle with his schtick.

Tracy and Reiss layer in plenty of zingy one-liners, with a joke about the inherently pass-ag evil of CCing emails sublime. Mulholland Dr. cinematographer Peter Deming knows how to capture the nightmarish possibility of apparently perfect lives unfurling, with the devil in the detail further spun by Collin Stetson’s skittering score.

If there’s a weakness in this deliciously wicked serving, the class commentary cut into the dish isn’t quite as sharp as it should be. The us-versus-them narrative is hung almost entirely on Taylor-Joy’s shoulders, with little insight into the overworked and no doubt underpaid kitchen crew who serve Julian’s every unreasonable whim with a military-like bellow of “YES CHEF”. Beyond a brief glimpse of their army barracks-like communal dorm, as compared to chef’s luxurious private cottage, and a genuinely shocking interaction with one sous chef (Adam Aalderks) who aspires to Julian’s position, this plot strand is a little undercooked. Though mad props to Watchmen star Hong Chau’s impeccably realised right-hand chef cum maître d’, who brings all of the withering energy of an entirely unimpressed guardian of the door of a restaurant with a months-long waiting list.

The flavours are fused expertly by Mylod, who lathers an immaculate ensemble led by Taylor-Joy, Hoult and Fiennes into a frothy foam of sound and fury that’s well worth gorging on.