2014, 107 mins, 15, Dir. Lone Scherfig, starring Sam Claflin, Max Irons and Douglas Booth
The upper classes and their foibles have had a peculiar endurance though much of world cinema history. In La Regle du jeu (1939), Jean Renoir’s country-house gentry were potent allegories for the moral corruption of pre-WW2 French society; in turn many of Hitchcock’s characters were frustrated rich Americans with polished accents. There is something inexplicably fascinating in observing these financially empowered people and how they live, perhaps especially so when they behave in a way that is mortally, abominably offensive.
Lone Scherfig’s new film The Riot Club understands this fact. Drawing from the 2010 play Posh by Laura Wade, who also writes the screenplay, it depicts members of a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club, an infamous society at Oxford University known for its exclusive membership policy and drunken, ostentatious dinners. We quickly become acquainted with the ten impeccably-dressed members of the Riot Club, including two newly-inducted first-years, as they trash each other’s rooms and race around town in expensive cars. They use their parents’ money in profligate and unseemly ways and seem to have their futures planned out for them, as symbolised by Tom Hollander’s Jeremy, a Machiavellian MP. The club is not just for Oxford, Jeremy tells the boys, it is for life, as the political connections it offers can prove supremely useful to get out of any difficulties.
The film actually commences around the Georgian era, where we see a gloriously wigged Oxford don (hilariously referred to as that immortal student noun, ‘legend’) engaging in wild sexual acts worthy of A Rake’s Progress. He is stabbed by the unfortunate husband of one of his wenches, leading to the inauguration by his friends of the tradition-bound institution of the film’s title. These historical scenes only further underline the debauched behaviour of the modern-day club members; their elaborate drinking rituals, alcoholic snobbery and financial waste are as archaic as they are arcane. Scherfig assembles a sterling male cast that, combined with the consistently profane script, portray with great invention the views and traits of these characters. In particular, Sam Claflin proves deceptively destructive as Alistair Ryle, the first-year whose violent right-wing politics threaten to induce actual violence. Also impressive is Holliday Grainger as Lauren, the unpretentious Mancunian student who is caught up in the snobbish, machismo-heavy atmosphere of the richer male students.
The central set-piece is an agonisingly long dinner at a local pub, a scene of heavy drinking and rampant class and sexual tensions. It is here that the problems of the film begin to emerge. For all its filming on Oxford rooftops and in country mansions, The Riot Club never quite escapes its stage origins. The dinner scene, confined mostly to a single room, is arguably stretched to excess in terms of actual running time, its cinematic impact diminished. Moreover the behaviour of the Riot Club members seems, ironically, very exaggerated. Sam Claflin’s astonishing line ‘I’m sick to f—ing death of poor people!’ seems absurd even when his character is intoxicated; the final act of stupendous masculine violence, following attempted prostitution and cocaine usage, is equally inconceivable through lack of real precedent. The film is of course an obviously fictional work in which excess is part of the overall effect. Yet if it tries to portray a class that does exist in England, it must surely do so accurately. When the Oxford admissions department continues earnestly to disassociate itself from ideas of wealth and privilege, and a national press often misunderstands the Oxbridge student experience, one can’t help thinking that a subtler take on the story could have been assumed with wholly greater success.
The Riot Club is very well acted by a superb cast of young performers and portrays Oxford in all its Medieval splendour. Yet it is mired in both its stage origins and its own self-conscious shock value, which troubles attempts at plausibility and empathy.