A group of people gather on a wharf to be ferried across to an island that is the private domain of famously temperamental and perfectionist celebrity chef Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes. They have all paid an eye-watering amount – $1250 a head – to experience his degustation menu, a series of gastronomic creations whose main purpose seems to be not so much the diner’s pleasure as the glorification of the host.
Among the 12 assembled diners are Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) the last-minute replacement date of Tyler (Nicholas Hault), a foodie fanboy. There are wealthy status-seekers and a table of rowdy box-tickers who want bragging rights for having been there. There’s a famous food critic (Janet McTeer) who’s followed Slowik’s career and who gives a running commentary on each dish in hilariously abstruse foodie jargon. She and Slowik both take themselves very seriously, but he doesn’t like her or her interpretations of his genius.
He doesn’t seem to like his guests much at all. There are to be no special requests, not even for such accompaniments as bread and water. Questions are not encouraged. Complaints are not entertained. Photographing the food is forbidden. Talking is barely tolerated. Guests are to sit in silence while Slowik announces each course with bombastic theatricality and the staff – a small army of unsmiling myrmidons – presents a series of absurdities such as a breadless bread platter or a dish of foam and leaves.
Anyone who raises a peep is barked at and cowed into silence. Most of the guests eventually submit to this tyranny, except for Margo, the only accidental guest, who describes the proceedings as ‘the basecamp of Mount Bullshit’.
At this point I settled in for what promised to be an enjoyably sharp satire on the excesses of foodie culture – the fads, the follies, the ridiculously pretentious lingo, the vanity and egotism of its stars. An over-the-top – but only just – black comedy inspired by places like Noma in Copenhagen or El Bulli in Spain.
Then Slowik announces the arrival of a course called The Mess, and things start to get very messy indeed. And ugly. And violent. In fact the whole show morphs from satire into horror, for no good reason that I could detect.
Slowik seems to be acting out some kind of vengeance fantasy, as the plotline borrows horror tropes from all over. I recognized elements of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – trapped and terrified people desperately seeking a way out, and perhaps The Hunger Games – people having to fight and kill one another to save their own lives. It’s all very unpleasant.
Ralph Fiennes is good as always, even when playing an evil bastard, but I wish it hadn’t changed tack halfway through into a blood-and-gore fest. I can only rate the first half, so two out of five from me.