In divisive film The Riot Club, youthful exuberance is mashed into the class politics of a historic University where flourishing meritocracy puts the entitled’s skyward noses severely out of joint.

Lone Scherfig, who brought us the Oscar nominated An Education in 2009, offers us a veritable gluttony of privilege. Aston Martins, country estates, exquisite tailoring, ten bird roasts and public boarding schools spew from the screen. But for all its dependency on modern wealth and luxury, this underground, Oxford society has its roots in tradition. The film’s opening scenes are a cringe-inducing pastiche of eighteenth-century debauchery, drunkenness and duels. Is this a spoof you might ask. Fast-forward to 2014 and romanticised vice makes way for arrogant entitlement and elitism. Under the guise of an entrepreneurial society the club dines out, drinking excessively, trashing rooms and buying women. Is the Riot Club’s vandalism and misogyny made reasonable by their ability to pay off the victims? And should it?
Riot Club cast

The Riot Club has its inspiration in Oxford’s infamous Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were all reputedly members. Scherfig’s film doesn’t fail to draw on this succulent fact: it’s laced with references to the powerful futures of its club’s members. But Scherfig’s treatment of party politics goes beyond portraying the Conservative Party simply as an old boy’s club. In The Riot Club, elitism and privilege bleed into corruption. Sensationalist perhaps, but it’s a potent concoction. Shrouded in mystery, its the blurred lines between reality and fantasy that make The Riot Club so enticing.

“Its the blurred lines between reality and fantasy that make The Riot Club so enticing”

Arriving after a Tory-led programme of austerity measures and budget cuts, the simpatico between the real-life Bullingdon and The Riot Club makes Scherfig’s film a provocative one. The Riot Club revels in this perfect climate for a spot of posh-bashing. And, although it makes plenty of effort, her film goes little beyond this vulgar intention. Adapted by Laura Wade from her own stage play Posh, Scherfig’s film version succeeds in patronising both halves of its social divide in a series of rotten cliches and flimsy characters.

The club majors in stereotypes, there’s a coward, a fop and a predatory homosexual, but the main conflict occurs between Miles (Max Irons), moderate in spite of his wealthy ‘honourable’ status, and rightwing classmate, Alistair (Sam Claflin), who sneers at New Labour voters, those in debt and, most shockingly, the NHS. Meanwhile a token northern accent signals entry to the university by merit. The film has just two female characters and one is a prostitute. Later, the extreme wealth and naive, juvenile behaviour of the club is contrasted with that of a family’s ruby wedding celebrations. The ‘average’ folk are twee, sentimental, saccharine.

Yet it’s during these pro-longed scenes of a decadent and lewd club dinner in a pub’s private room, set against the everyday food service outside, that The Riot Club starts to shine. The club, dressed in their high-society formal-wear enter the pub to the shock of ordinary diners. It’s the first time we see the club outside of the protective university landscape. They’re in the open, outmoded, old fashioned. There’s no place for them in the real, adult world. We might feel sorry for them – they are a pigeonholed minority – but in their naive, childish arrogance we’re given little reason to.

“Controversial, frequently sensationalist entertainment”

It’s during this extended dinner scene that the Riot Club gains most from its on-stage roots and Scherfig carefully escalates the drunkenness, the vandalism and the chauvinistic attitude to women. It feels out of control, dangerous. There are shades of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the destructive, abusive, animal-like violence that ensues, although there’s little of that director’s panache. The Riot Club is gripping in its characters’ rapid degeneration.
Riot Club Holliday Grainger

And so what’s most shocking about The Riot Club is the note on which it chooses to close. Against all its hints and suggestions – the outmoded nature of the club and their minority status, to their attitudes so at odds with the modern world – The Riot Club changes trajectory. It’s a jarring, irritating conclusion that empowers those we have come to judge so mercilessly. That this minority wield so much power makes for an abrasive, severe and frightening point.

Yet while Scherfig’s film takes on big issues from politics to the legal system it also leaves the most tantalising questions just out of reach. What can, and should, money buy? Can it buy freedom? And innocence?

For all its grisly point scoring, The Riot Club’s willingness to indulge in clichés undermines its messages and the result is a muddled, confused mess. The club is largely abhorrent, even the most moderate member is far too self-serving to generate much empathy. And yet, by focussing on seductively detestable toffs (who despise the poor while simultaneously buying their compliance), The Riot Club feeds on a nation’s class divide. Scherfig gives us controversial, frequently sensationalist, entertainment. It’s a risk that doesn’t always pay-off.

VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ 3/5


For more information, see the official website
UK Release Date: 19 September 2014