September 21, 2014 Leave a comment
The hedonistic antics of Oxford student Lord Ryot have since become the stuff of lore, and the ‘Riot Club’ established in his honour continues to this day. Down two members at the start of the new academic year, the traditionally ten-strong club initiate Project Grasshopper in an attempt to fill out their ranks. Two freshers seem to fit the bill: Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) is the younger brother of a former club leader and Miles Richards (Max Irons) is a graduate of Harrow who has caught the eye of existing member Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Sam Reid). The two share a tutorial group, where they quickly discover a difference of opinion. Their disagreement on the welfare state comes to a head at one of the club’s already notorious dinner parties, which they attend alongside fellow members Hugo, Harry (Douglas Booth), James (Freddie Fox), Demitri (Ben Schnetzer) Toby (Olly Alexander) and Guy (Matthew Beard), and when talk turns to Miles’ romance with Lauren (Holliday Graniger) — a mere regional — things start to get out of hand.
Based on Laura Wade’s play Posh, itself a dramatisation of the real-life Bullington Club which has at one time or another counted among its members David Cameron and Boris Johnson, The Riot Club is easily politicised. Plagued by walkouts, Posh — which premiered in 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre — was uncompromising in its piggish portrayal of the Oxbridge elite, concerning an essentially real-time display of depravity over dinner. Some will criticise director Lone Scherfig’s apparent compromise, not only changing the film’s title but toning down the commentary and satire in favour of characterisation and drama. She doesn’t just want the this time international audience to see it through to the end, after all, but to perhaps even one day buy the film on DVD and watch it again. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as it is ultimately fiction, and should therefore be able to stand on its own as well.
And stand on its own it does, for whether you know of its basis in reality or not the film manages to provoke a response. Scherfig isn’t interested in making her characters endearing, but does at least manage to make them engaging — if not necessarily believable. A prologue, serving as an introduction to the club’s raison d’être through its founding fathers, is almost pantomime in tone, and pays homage to the story’s theatrical origins. The movie proper begins with our introduction to Miles and Alistair, who agree to switch rooms when the latter’s parents kick up a fuss. Miles is our way in, not a protagonist per se so much as the lesser of ten evils. Alistair, meanwhile, enjoys the juiciest arc, though it quickly becomes clear that he is destined for something other than a hero’s journey. The audience’s only real representation comes via a supporting cast of bewildered bystanders.
The first act is despicable but delicious, as the various club members are made figures of fun, either showing themselves up in front of their publicly educated peers or engaging in almost cartoonishly bourgeois banter. Highlights include Alistair attempting to educate his own muggers on the misnomer that is “PIN number” (that they’re essentially saying Personal Identification Number number) and Demitri posting his car keys through the letterbox of a charity shop because a friend has thrown up over the bonnet. Things take an altogether darker turn as the club members arrive at an out of town gastro pub for their annual dinner party, having first hired an escort to entertain them and then — when she refuses to oblige their every sexual need — lured Laura out under false pretenses. It’s not just women they abuse (which includes their waitress, played by Downton Abbey‘s Jessica Findlay-Brown), or the pub’s Scottish proprietor (Gordon Brown), but one another. It’s a showstopping set piece, but makes for incredibly uncomfortable viewing.
For while Schrefig might conceivably be accused of dialing things down the cast continue to ramp things up. The performances are as committed as they come, with a generation of pretty boy actors best known for romantic leads in Young Adult adaptations clearly relishing the opportunity to be as ugly as possible. Schnetzer (in marked contrast to his characters in The Book Thief and Pride) is here petulant and spoilt, while Douglas Booth (who recently impressed in Noah after a series of non-starters) is genuinely grotesque. The film ultimately belongs to Max Irons, however, who is almost sympathetic as Miles — he’s spineless, sure, but not entirely squalid. Meanwhile, the weakest link is perhaps Claflin, who impresses in individual scenes but fails to convince overall. Considering just how demonstratively evil he is later revealed to be, his early scenes are strangely benign. While never sympathetic, his early trajectory seems at odds with his pending transformation, and when he of all people finally snaps it comes as slightly too much of a surprise.
The Riot Club could have perhaps been viler, more unsavoury, but then nobody would have hung around long enough to experience the full force of the final act. By ridiculing the characters before ultimately condemning them, it manages to both humour and horrify, to be both appealing and appalling. It’s not trying to be accurate after all, or exclusive. To misquote Joanna Lumley, you don’t have to be posh to have this privilege.