Review – The Riot Club

2014, 107 mins, 15, Dir. Lone Scherfig, starring Sam Claflin, Max Irons and Douglas Booth

The Riot Club
The Riot Club

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.

This seems rather familiar...
This seems rather familiar…
...Ah yes. This.
…ah yes. This.

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.



Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.

News – Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective

This is the first time I’ve done anything on this blog in the way of film news, not just because I don’t quite have enough time, but also because there are several dozen other places where you can read about every upcoming production, every cinematic hint, every update on directors with relative ease. However, the most recent development by the BFI in terms of film programming filled me with indescribable excitement, and I just had to write something brief about it.

This summer, to perhaps tie in with the Olympics season and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the BFI Southbank (or, National Film Theatre) will show all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving films in a retrospective the scale of which has never yet before been seen at the repertory cinema. That’s right, all 58 films that are available, from the newly restored The Pleasure Garden to his final feature, Family Plot, will be shown over a period between August and October, while some of his earlier silent films will also be shown across the country with live scores.

The Pleasure Garden - Hitchcock's first film, newly restored.

The BFI will be ‘celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.“‘

Psycho - a compelling cinematic experience.

For me, this is an astonishing move. I was brought up on Hitchcock movies and they were among my first introduction to what might be called ‘classic cinema’. My mother showed me all his most iconic features and even took me to see North by Northwest at the NFT, my first trip to that brilliant cinema which continues to shape my film choices to this day. As I’ll (hopefully) be a BFI member by August, I will go and see as many Hitchcock movies as I can. That’s right, morning, afternoon and evening, I’ll be there, sitting in one of the three screens, helping to celebrate one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers that ever lived. And this blog will be home to my excited self, reviewing every film I see and complaining about my subsequent lack of bank balance. I hope you’ll look forward to it.

'Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.' - Alfred Hitchcock