Young couple Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) wait on a dock for a ferry. Soon joined by a variety of other guests, they look forward to the feast of a lifetime.
Like the line-up from a whodunit, the group includes a former film star, investment bankers and a feared restaurant critic just to name a few. For a small fortune they are brought to a private island to dine at the exclusive Hawthorne Restaurant. The intimidating owner Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) commands his fiercely loyal staff to aim for absolute perfection.
On arrival, guests are given a tour of the island, which feels more like the compound of a religious cult than living quarters for a kitchen staff. Once seated, guests are about to be served the most important meal of their lives and through several courses, Slowik will present his masterpiece, a menu with some horrific surprises.
A black comedy with fine dining at its centre, The Menu comes out at the right time. There are countless travel shows on TV about restaurants or food competitions and almost everybody takes photos of their meal before eating. What is missing from much of this is a basic joy of cooking or respect for the craft, and I think this is something to keep in mind going into The Menu to help appreciate the film. The Menu is best approached with little foreknowledge to allow you to be as surprised as the characters within the film. Although, it could be cheekily described as ‘Ratatouille meets Seven’, as bizarre as that sounds.
Given the large cast, I was initially worried that besides the leads, the rest of the cast would blend into the background. On the contrary, while there are stand outs, the cast are largely given an even focus. With its slow build up we grow to care about each table of guests individually and equally. Why they want to be there or why Slowik wants them to be there as the case may be.
Two noteworthy performances would be Nicholas Hoult whose character Tyler goes in a completely unexpected direction. While Hong Chau was coldly intimidating as Elsa the maître d’. It is genuinely creepy when she quietly tells a customer, “you will eat less than you desire and more than you deserve”.
But Ralph Fiennes is amazing and commands the screen as Slowik commands his staff. There is a build up to his entrance and he maintains an unnerving aura throughout. Not once does he raise his voice, like famous chef Gordon Ramsay does. Instead, Slowik is beyond that and this makes him all the more awe-inspiring.
Writers Seth Reiss and Will Tracy both worked on satirical news outlet The Onion, and have brought that brilliant wit to The Menu. In a similar way in which The Onion’s parody articles that can seem quite genuine, there is an authenticity to Hawthorne. The idea of ‘molecular gastronomy’, a scientific approach to meal preparation Slowik specialises in, seems ridiculous to me. However, this is a very real thing and throughout the film the meals Slowick‘s team create are as beautiful as they are bizarre.
Director Mark Mylod and team have created the restaurant from hell. Most of the film resides on the one set, the dining room and open kitchen of Hawthorne. Despite this, the location never grows stale. The Menu is humorous but still in many ways a thriller. Yet it doesn’t require conventional jump scares or bucket loads of blood to be effective. It succeeds by keeping you on the edge of your seat with an interest in what it is going to serve up next.
It never truly builds to a bombastic coup de grâce, however. As much as I loved where the film went, it doesn’t quite earn it. If I was to use a food metaphor (the laziest of metaphors), it feels undercooked and a little hard to swallow.
Despite this, The Menu remains a biting and fascinating dark satire of the world of high-end dining. I would recommend this to any foodie out there or to those seeking a thriller with an original twist. Its clever script keeps you hungry for more. While the culinary delights on display will leave you just plain hungry.