Dir: Lone Scherfig. UK. 2014. 107mins
A powerful and illuminating delve into the darker side of young well-to-do British men who dub themselves upper class and celebrate their life of privilege through the excesses of an exclusive Oxford University undergraduate dining society, Lone Scherfig’s highly watchable The Riot Club will likely reinforce poor opinion about these posh youth (especially in the UK) as they dress up, get drunk and behave astonishingly badly.
As a non-Brit, director Lone Scherfig offers an appropriate outsiders perspective – as she did in An Education - on the goings on, delivering a challenging and provocative film that hints at compassion and regret as well as bad behaviour.
Scripted by Laura Wade – and based on her acclaimed play Posh – will gather further attention in the British media at least, given it is a fictionalised take on Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, a society noted for boisterous rituals and fine dining, with former members including current Prime Minister David Cameron; Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and current Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Whether this helps or hinders the film remains to be seen, but as a slick, classy and provocative drama it works very well, offering a cast of young and good-looking British actors some nice juicy roles to really get their teeth into.
Wade has done a good job in opening up her own stage production, especially in the film’s first half which focuses on two new Oxford undergraduates who are targeted as possible Riot Club members (the club is named after a certain Lord Riot, rather than any overt connection to riotous behaviour, though it clearly works well as a film title), while the second half sticks more closely to the play as it dwells on a debauched dinner party in a private room at a country pub the descends into drunken excess and eventually violence.
As term begins at Oxford, new arrivals include genial Miles (Max Irons), keen to embrace University life and who is attracted to working class student Lauren (Holliday Grainger), and far posher Alistair (Sam Claflin). Both are targeted as possible Riot Club members – Alistair largely because his older brother was an ex-Rioter – and after a series of initiation tests are admitted to the historical 10-person club.
Banned from all Oxford establishments for their consistent bad behaviour, the club gathers at an out-of-the-way village pub for an evening that promises a ten-bird roast, unlimited alcohol and a return to old-fashioned debauchery. As the booze flows so does Alistair’s drunken protestation of his classes superiority and blustering rhetoric about how they are not treated with appropriate respect. Bluster turns to rage, which he – and some of the other clubbers – take out on the well-meaning pub landlord who tells them to leave after they damage his dining room.
With the police called in and all of their reputations at threat, the Riot Club must decide who takes the fall. The performances are all very impressive – with Max Irons especially good as a young man torn between his morals and the lure of the elite – though at times the club members can seem all very familiar as they wallow in pomposity, privilege and an inbred sense of entitlement. The film elicits anger at their behaviour, while at the same time it is clear these are a small and deeply unpleasant minority.
As a non-Brit, director Lone Scherfig offers an appropriate outsiders perspective – as she did in An Education - on the goings on, delivering a challenging and provocative film that hints at compassion and regret as well as bad behaviour. A striking new film.
Production company: Blueprint Pictures
International sales: HanWay Films, www.hanwayfilms.com
Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin
Executive producer: Steve Norris
Screenplay: Laura Wade, based on her play Posh
Cinematography: Sebastian Blenkov
Editor: Jake Roberts
Production designer: Alice Normington
Music: Kasper Winding
Main cast: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid, Ben Schnetzer, Jack Farthing, Matthew Beard, Freddie Fox, Josh O’Connor, Olly Alexander, Holliday Grainger, Jessica Brown Findlay, Natalie Dormer