D: Lone Scherfig / 107m
Cast: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Holliday Grainger, Sam Reid, Ben Schnetzer, Freddie Fox, Olly Alexander, Matthew Beard, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jack Farthing, Michael Jibson, Natalie Dormer, Tom Hollander
Two new students at an Oxford university, Alistair Ryle (Claflin) and Miles Richards (Irons), are from privileged backgrounds but couldn’t be more different. Alistair is cold and aloof, and arrogant in his approach to others. Miles is more carefree and open, and less snobbish. Despite their very different personalities they both find themselves sought after for membership of the Riot Club, an exclusive fraternity that favours drinking and debauchery and any other hedonistic pursuits. With their annual dinner coming up, and both young men needed to meet the required numbers for the dinner to go ahead, the Riot Club recruits them (but not before they have to undergo a variety of tests to prove they’re worthy of membership).
In the meantime, Miles has begun a relationship with Lauren (Grainger), a young woman of humbler origins. But as the selection process for the Riot Club begins in earnest, Miles fails to see the warning signs of being part of the club while Lauren sees them all too clearly. When she starts to question Miles’s need to be a part of the Riot Club, a rift begins to open up between them, but they remain friends nevertheless.
With the club having been banned from most of the pubs and bars and restaurants in Oxford, they are forced to hold their annual dinner at a country pub. The landlord, Chris (Jibson), is delighted to have them as it will mean a substantial amount of revenue for the pub, but his daughter, Rachel (Findlay) isn’t so sure, or so keen to have them there. The evening arrives and the club members quickly become drunk and rowdy, causing a disturbance and behaving with appalling manners. When the prostitute (Dormer) that club member Harry Villiers (Booth) has arranged baulks at giving oral sex to all ten men, Alistair secretly uses Miles’s mobile phone to text Lauren and get her to come to the pub. When she arrives, thinking that Miles is looking forward to seeing her, she is shocked to find herself verbally abused and asked to substitute for the prostitute. Even worse, Miles fails to do anything to help her; she leaves in tears.
As the evening progresses, the Riot Club members become increasingly unruly, and when they discover that the food they ordered isn’t exactly what they asked for, they grow aggressive and begin to trash the dining room, egged on by Alistair, who spouts class-based bile. When Chris sees the damage they’ve done and tries to remonstrate with them, things take a darker, more violent turn…
Featuring the cream of young British male acting talent, The Riot Club is a demanding, disturbing look at the ways in which privilege and contempt can go hand in hand and lead to the most horrifying of situations and circumstances. Adapted by Laura Wade from her play, Posh – itself based on the exploits of the Bullingdon Club – The Riot Club depicts the kind of arrogant, dismissive behaviour most viewers will take for granted, and therein lies one of the movie’s main problems: even at its most melodramatic, the club’s actions aren’t quite as appalling as the movie would like them to be. True, they’re abusive, disdainful, egotistical, misogynistic, conceited and full of their own self-importance, but we’ve seen this kind of misconduct before, and while it’s competently presented, viewers won’t be surprised by the direction in which the storyline travels.
What we have here is a spurious social commentary made up to appear relevant in relation to the latest ideas about the class divide (and acerbically delivered in a caustic speech by Claflin near the dinner’s end). In truth it boils down to the standard, predictable belief that the haves are dismissive of, and abhor, the have-nots, and look down on them as inferior and unimportant when weighed against the needs of the so-called elite. It’s hardly news, and Wade’s depiction of these privileged young men is often as cynical as the characters’ attitudes, leaving the viewer unsure if she, in her own way, is as contemptuous of them as they are of Lauren et al. There’s an attempt as well to provide a political as well as social context to the club members’ behaviour, but it comes across as too prosaic to have much of an impact. Alistair’s desperate assertions notwithstanding, it’s clear there’s no excuse for what they do, and the script rarely tries to provide any credible explanation. This leaves the club’s self-aggrandising dissipation with no other justification than that they behave the way they do purely because they can, a message that is clear from the beginning.
In transferring Wade’s play to the screen, Scherfig wisely stages things with a nod to the material’s theatrical origins, and the dinner party itself achieves a certain claustrophobic ambience after a time, and while Scherfig keeps the camera moving – often dizzyingly so – the movie traps the viewer in that room with the Riot Club and keeps a seat there for them throughout, in an attempt to make them in some way complicit in the debauchery. It’s a neat idea, but doesn’t quite work, the camera forced to move outside the room too often to maintain the effect. Otherwise, the dinner party and all its tawdry developments – the movie’s own main course, if you will – have a cumulative effect that is surprisingly effective from a visual perspective. In fact, the movie looks good throughout, a tribute to both DoP Sebastian Blenkov and production designer Alice Normington.
Of the cast, Claflin stands out the most by virtue of being the movie’s most clearly defined villain, an acid-tongued, rancour-spouting advocate of class hatred. It’s a fierce, uncompromising performance and confirms Claflin isn’t afraid to “mix it up” outside of the heroics of The Hunger Games. As his foil and target, Irons makes Miles a little too insipid to be entirely credible or likeable, while Grainger quietly steals the movie with a well-rounded portrayal of a young woman for whom the best privilege is being where she is, and having a sense of achievement her more aristocratic co-students can’t (or don’t have to) fathom. In amongst all the sturm und drang, its cast members such as Jibson as the conflicted Chris that make the most impact, while Booth, Reid and Alexander et al. struggle to do much with their less detailed roles.
A clutch of good performances however, fail to make up for the unevenness of the material and its often simplistic notions of class warfare. That the members of the Riot Club are snobbish and uncaring of others is a given; that they don’t show any signs of self-awareness means their unrestrained amorality becomes both unpleasant and increasingly dull to watch. To see so much bad behaviour taking place, and with continued impunity, makes The Riot Club a frustrating experience to watch and one that arrives at its final “point” with a dispiriting vindication that robs the viewer of any catharsis from what they’ve seen up til then. And that’s a mean trick to play on anyone.
Rating: 5/10 – visually arresting at times, and with strong performances that offset the often muddled dramatics, The Riot Club has energy to spare but doesn’t quite know what to do with it all; suffocating at times, and not as “relevant” as it might have been thirty years ago.