Review: The Riot Club (2014)

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Director: Lone Scherfig
Screenwriter: Laura Wade
Based on Posh, a stage play by Laura Wade
Cast: Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Douglas Booth, Natalie Dormer, Holliday Grainger, Freddie Fox, Ben Schnetzer, Tom Hollander & Jessica Brown Findlay
Runtime: 107 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aO9lXtXsLco]

As I watched – nay, endured – The Riot Club, Laura Wade’s satirical take on privilege, nepotism and the English aristocracy in the 21st Century, there was but one question racing through my mind; does a film have to be enjoyable in order for it to be “good”?

If the answer is “yes”, then The Riot Club is – to put things simply – a loathsome affair with all the nuance and subtlety of a bullhorn. If, however, the answer is “no”, then though all of these criticisms still apply, there is clearly something going on beneath the film’s surface that means it’s actually a decent film in its own special way, even though I personally hated almost every moment spent in the presence of its wretched characters.

Based on her own stage-play “Posh”, which was first performed just one month before the election into office of the very people it was supposed to be satirising, the film revolves around the activities of an elite but unofficial society at Oxford University, known colloquially as “The Riot Club”. Said to comprise the ten “best” and brightest” (read: wealthiest and most well connected) students enrolled at Oxford at any one time, the Riot Club is a society full of obscenely wealthy young men who avoid recrimination for their criminal behaviour by paying for any damage caused in immediate, cold hard cash, and who view their membership as an essential springboard into the boardrooms and offices of true power and influence in our society.

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Wade’s film, which expands on the story told in her play, initially focuses on the inauguration and initiation of two new members into the club – Miles (Irons; The Host) and Alistair (Claflin; The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) – before allowing us to indulge in one of their infamous annual dinners. What therefore begins as a light-hearted and mildly satirical poke at the expense of the social ineptitude and general preposterousness of the highest echelons of society quickly descends into a frightful drama about the consequences – or lack thereof – of the characters’ unfettered sense of privilege and entitlement, all of which comes to a devastating head when their dinner ends with a pub landlord being beaten half to death.

Or, rather, it attempts to explore the consequences of such values and actions, only to fall short when it really matters. See, the main issue I have with The Riot Club, above all else, is that I’m not sure it actually gives a shit about what its characters get up to. Indeed, there are times when it seems to go so far as to revel in and enable their amorality and debauchery with neither criticism nor condemnation. It is nominally a satire – though even then, questions must be raised about whether such obtuse parodying really qualifies as satirical at all – and for the first half an hour of so it certainly indulges in some amusing digs at the club’s traditions and the complete lack of self-awareness of some of its members, but this is about as far as the ridicule really goes. The tone is less scathing than it is self-deprecating as, rather than mocking the club and demonstrating to the audience just how repugnant certain elements of it are, the first act is devoted to making us tolerate – and perhaps even like – these people.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q97mGw4glwA]

That I found the whole experience off-putting doesn’t necessarily mean that it is without merit, however. The central point of the film is that no matter how awful these people are, they are a fact of life and will probably grow up to lead the country. As far as I’m concerned, too much time and effort is devoted to getting you to like, and maybe even envy, these hateful characters, but there’s no denying just how stark their “fall from grace” in the final act is. The final few minutes are quite literally terrifying as they perfectly encapsulate all of the injustices that permeate through our so-called meritocracy, while the slow but sharp descent into decadence, licentiousness and hedonism at the annual dinner marks a pointed shift in tone from humorous to horrific.

Nonetheless, I still didn’t get the impression that Wade was anywhere near excoriating enough. Maybe it’s just me, but much like The Iron Lady (also based on the true story of power at the top of the Conservative Party, albeit one from a much different background), The Riot Club feels like a political film that is wholly disinterested in politics. It takes no stand and it offers no acute criticisms, rather it simply asks its audience to make up their own minds. On the one hand I respect this approach, as it avoids bluntness and caterwauling, yet it also means that the film feels purposeless and empty. I’m just not sure there’s any real value, satirical or otherwise, in a film which appears to glamorise wealth and elitism in a manner that, while not wholly uncritical, is far from scathing. Compare it to films like The Wolf of Wall Street or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Spring Breakers, and you soon realise that its apparent distaste for uninhibited hedonism is at once tame, infantile and somewhat sycophantic.

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Like the real-life Bullingdon Club upon which Wade’s fictitious society is based, the Riot Club acts as a breeding grounds for the next generation of leaders. It is quite fitting then that this film seems to be acting as a breeding ground for the next generation of British stars. People like Claflin and Booth (Noah) have already started making a major name for themselves, though the performances of Max Irons and Holliday Grainger (Great Expectations), who plays the stereotypically “common-as-muck Northern lass” that Miles falls in love with, shouldn’t go unnoticed either. Furthermore, Schnetzer and Fox, both of whom recently dazzled in Matthew WarchusPride – a film whose politics couldn’t be more different – put in decent supporting roles as additional members of the putrid club, while Gordon Brown (no, not that one… he’d have beaten seven shades of shit out of each and every person in the Riot Club without batting an eyelid) delivers the film’s best and most understated performance as the landlord who falls foul of the Club’s hive-mind superiority complex. The characters are almost all odious, no doubt about it, but the people playing them do a solid job of elevating them beyond basic caricature and manage to capture the often muddled tone of the piece rather effectively.

The Riot Club is a difficult film for me to judge without breaking into a rendition of the Internationale, though it does deserve some credit for making me feel physically repulsed while at the same time making me laugh, albeit begrudgingly, at the sheer anarchy unfolding on the screen. The ending is abrupt, and some people have complained that it lets these people off too lightly, thus cementing its place as a work of admiration rather than a work of satire, though for me this misses the point. The ending works because it’s such an accurate reflection of how the British class system works, and that’s what makes it so terrifying. I of course wish the film had been more vicious about its subjects, and I’d have loved to see them all suffer for their crimes, but had that happened it would’ve been a flagrant dismissal of harsh reality.

Did I enjoy The Riot Club? No, not really. Is it still a good film? Yes, to an extent… which I guess that answers my initial question. I’m also a sucker for a pretty face, irrespective of how rancid the personality underneath it is, and this film has those in abundance. What can I say? I’m shallow as fuck…

★★★

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