Genre: Drama, Thriller
Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Douglas Booth, Max Irons, Holliday Grainger
Have you ever found yourself in the presence of someone so unbearably obnoxious it’s hard to summon up a civil word? Now imagine ten of them smashing up eating establishments, degrading women and putting the oikish poor in their place. Playing out like an extended Labour Party election broadcast at its worst, The Riot Club is as deafening as a blunderbuss and about as up with the times.
The gunpowder takes its time igniting. The opening exchanges zip by fleet of foot, dancing nimbly through the crashingly shallow world within this cinematic Oxford. And if there is ever doubt it is Oxford, the camera slopes down creeping spires and ancient masonry, coming to rest in oak panelled rooms lined with priceless books. If that is not clear enough, Laura Wade’s screenplay, adapted from her successful stage play Posh, peppers the dialogue with direct references to their setting.
At one stage Lauren (Holiday Grainger), the token state educated student and regional woman wrapped into one, describes a room as being too Oxford for Oxford. This is the Richard Curtis approach to Britain, Notting Hill minus the feel good factor. Hugh Grant might be absent but it is no closer to reality.
So what is going on in this near two hour assault on the higher reaches of the class system? The target is the Bullingdon Club. Wait, I meant The Riot Club. It is the hottest ticket in (Oxford) town for young gentleman of the right breeding and the wrong outlook on life. Just like its unspoken real life equivalent, this exclusive club caters for those who wish to drink, smash things up and then straighten the tie before heading for a highly successful professional career. Except The Riot Club needs ten members and they appear to be two short.
Step forward Miles Richards (Max Irons) and Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin). Miles may have an honourable before his name but he has a heart. He dates Lauren, even going so far as to call her nice in front of his club brethren. There is also a superfluous opportunity for him to praise the welfare state in a debate with Alistair, hammering home liberal convictions. Young Mr. Ryle on the other hand is a full blown upper class monster, the kind the more rabid on the left fear lurk under the bed. He looks down on anyone without the requisite heritage and is all too happy to stand atop a dining table railing against the poor. And these two are the most complete characters on offer. The rest are ra ra boys straight out a Guardian cartoon.
After undergoing a typically unpleasant initiation, they are invited along to the first club dinner of the new year. Given past behaviour, most venues are now out of bounds leading them to a distant family pub in the countryside. The dinner takes up a significant portion of the film as the unruly future rulers bicker, snipe and lose control in an evening that pits them against the working man (and his daughter) before turning unbelievably criminal unbelievably quickly.
Somewhere in this murky mess, there is even a bit of fun to be had. The stereotypes hold up far longer than expected, the jokes hit home in an Eton Inbetweeners way. That only lasts so long though. A stretched running time, the lack of anyone even passably palatable – Miles, despite his credentials, is disappointingly wet and unappealing; Lauren no more than a bystander – and a sledgehammer approach to class relations soon drag it into the mud.
None of these are The Riot Club’s biggest sin. Beneath the petty name calling and reverse snobbery, there is a hint of admiration for the despicable bogeymen at the top of society. As they are thrown to the wolves, the camera lusts after their surroundings and revels in their grip on power. The Riot Club wants to have its cake and eat it. In the end, it would have been better for everyone if this vile cabal could have left everyone else in peace and just kept to the privacy of their dilapidated country estates.