Primarily known for his TV work on the likes of Game of Thrones, Entourage, Once Upon a Time and Succession, director Mark Mylod makes a rare return to the big screen with The Menu, a dark, tense and twisted black comedy thriller set in the world of top-end Haute Cuisine.
Ralph Fiennes plays the intimidating celebrity chef Julian Slowik, a culinary genius who operates the exclusive Hawthorne restaurant, located on a remote private island accessed only via tender boat from the mainland.
Slowik has lost his love for cooking. He has lost all faith in the culinary industry. In pushing both experimental and experiential dining to the very cutting edge, Slowik has been forced to a price point where the standard patrons would might enjoy and appreciate his food the most simply cannot afford to visit.
Reservations at Hawthorne are made months in advance, and come with an eye-watering price-tag. The restaurant seats just twelve patrons, and the experience begins as soon as guests board the boat. However, these wealthy patrons are not there to enjoy the food. They are not there for the experience. They are there simply because they can afford to be, and to return time and time again, if they so wish. Collectively, they represent a microcosm of the very worst of society; corruption, unfaithfulness, greed. The deadly sins all represented by this elite collective.
Among the guests are obsessive Slowik fanboy Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his date for the evening, Margot Mills (Anya Taylor-Joy), a last-minute replacement for Tyler’s ex-partner. This instantly throws a spanner in the works when it is discovered that Miss Mills was not the guest they were expecting. We soon learn that every aspect of the eponymous menu has been carefully crafted specifically for and around the expected guests.
Margot is not like the others. She is deeply unimpressed by the pomp and ostentation of it all and cannot understand the reverence Tyler and the others have for Slowik. Margot is the voice of reason, and the voice of the ordinary diner, one who eats to feel full, and one who laughs off (quite literally) Slowik’s pretentious statement dishes. Slowik knows Margot is different and her presence quickly becomes a problem.
When he first addresses his guests, Slowik makes them promise not just to eat, but to taste. Taste the complex flavour combinations. Taste the stories told through the flavours. The first dish seems to go down fairly pleasantly, but before long, each course turns increasingly more dark and increasingly more sinister, each with an unnervingly personal and revelatory touch.
There is a real cultish sense about Hawthorne, from the sinister, isolated Wicker Man-eqsue locale to the unwavering dedication demanded from the staff. Slowik rules with an iron fist, requiring absolute control of both staff and guests. Everyone is dedicated to both the man and the idea. They listen intently to every syllable as he describes in intricate detail the ideas and stories behind the dishes, and halt in their tracks with the resounding clap Slowik uses to announce the arrival of each course. The chef’s move and respond to Slowik’s demands with military precision, while maitre d’ Elsa (Hong Chau), Julian’s right-hand lady, cracks the whip front of house.
The cinematography and production design is exquisite, with the team behind the hit Netflix series The Chef’s Table being brought in to recreate the exceptional filmmaking style seen in the series and showcase the individual dishes. Furthermore, numerous fine dining consultants and food designers from some of the world’s most esteemed Michelin-starred restaurants helped bring the dishes to life.
The Menu may be far from subtle but it is nonetheless fascinating, and the world created in and around Hawthorne is utterly captivating. While the overarching theme may not be original, the culinary setting and the taster menu style in which the message is delivered most definitely is. A deliciously twisted thriller with a scathing commentary on extreme wealth, excess, inequality, the class system, snobbery and the pretentiousness of the critic.