[This is a re-post of my The Riot Club review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is available on VOD and in select theaters starting today, March 27th.]
It’s nice to think that we live in a pretty fair world. Sure humanity is sprawling and varied, but our differences are mostly overcome by a sense of harmony or karma. It’s nice to think that, but it’s not necessarily true. Life isn’t fair. We aren’t all born with equal opportunity. You can’t be “whatever you want to be” when you grow up. The fact of the matter is, our destiny comes with restrictions based on the circumstances into which we are born. Location, time period, genetics—these are all factors that determine the ill-defined (but definitely real) limit to our reach, and like it or not, few are more significant than wealth and status.
Director Lone Scherfig’s (An Education) new film, The Riot Club, tackles class and social structure head-on from the eye of the young elite, following the members of a small and extremely exclusive club at the illustrious Oxford University. The film pulls no punches as it examines class structure from this “soon-to-be ruling class” point of view, and while it verges on going a bit over-the-top, it’s ultimately a winning and infuriatingly familiar story told with vigor, bombast, and debauchery galore.
The film opens, fittingly enough, with a humorous prologue revealing the history of the titular Riot Club. The club was founded at Oxford in honor of a man named Lord Riot, who was murdered in 1776 when he was caught sleeping with a married woman by her husband. This prologue tells us everything we need to know about the members of the club, with Lord Riot responding to the husband’s anger and surprise by explaining away his actions as simply attending to a void of satisfaction in the woman’s life that was heretofore unfulfilled.
The meat of the film takes place in modern day, as we’re introduced to two freshman boys who are starting University at Oxford. Miles (Max Irons) comes from a wealthy family but doesn’t carry it in his disposition. He’s easy-going, easy to like, and easily charmed by a fellow freshman girl from modest means, Lauren (Holliday Grainger). Though he also comes from a wealthy family, Alistair (Sam Claflin) is in some ways the complete opposite of Miles. A legacy at Oxford (and the Riot Club), he lives in the shadow of his beloved older brother.
Alistair is clearly carrying a heavy amount of emotional resentment and as a result, isn’t well versed in the ways of social discourse like Miles. Instead of coming off as affable or kind—like Miles—Allstair is haughty and uncomfortable, insisting on correcting grammar mistakes. He’s so uptight and smug that, while being robbed at an ATM at knifepoint, he makes a point to correct his attacker’s double use of the word “number” when ordering him to enter his “PIN number.”
As Miles strikes up a sweet and affectionate romance with Lauren, Alistair spends his time brooding. That is until both are called upon to join The Riot Club. Alistair sees this as an opportunity to finally fit in with “his kind”: the wealthy, entitled, and above all, elite. Miles isn’t as concerned with social status, but the allure of the legendary and secretive society is too attractive for him to ignore. Once invited, the two go through a series of debauched, filthy, and admittedly entertaining initiation rituals. The end of the initiation period is marked by an infamous dinner that is described by an older member as “debauchery raised to an art.” It’s during this extended sequence that things take a dark turn.
While Allstair spends the first half of the film looking uncomfortable and somewhat bored, he comes out of his shell during the dinner scene, loudly proclaiming his disgust at the working class in a lengthy diatribe spewed with equal parts venom and resentment. To Allstair, the poor are a lazy, jealous people who only wish that they had the honor of being one of the elite, like himself.
While the story could have easily continued with the villainous Allstair being righted or ostracized by his Riot Club brethren, that’s not really the way the world works. Allstair’s speech is greeted at first with apprehension, followed by embrace and then a fittingly riotous response from the fellow members. They can’t help but agree with Allstair. It’s not their fault they were born into money. They work hard in school, why shouldn’t they be entitled to copious amounts of alcohol, drugs, sex, and power? Those in the working class only wish they could be like them. But they can’t, and they should accept their place.
There is apprehension among the Club members during this dinner, namely in Miles, but no one has the guts to speak up outright. Silent abstention is really not much different than joining in, and thankfully Scherfig agrees. Miles doesn’t share Allstair’s beliefs and at one point sheepishly suggests everyone should learn to co-exist, but that doesn’t let him off the hook.
Claflin plays Allstair with such a smug, vile demeanor that he instantly instills a sense of disgust in the viewer when he’s on screen. The performance gets a little over the top at some points, verging on mustache-twirling villainy here and there, but Claflin reels it in where it counts. Irons, meanwhile, is excellent as the “noble” Miles. He is effortlessly charming, but brings shades of grey into a character that could have delved into Goody Two-Shoes territory. Irons and Scherfig understand that although Miles’ intentions are honest, actions speak louder than words.
From the set design to the costumes, the film evokes both the old world and the new, suggesting that the thoughts, feelings, and politics of those in the Riot Club—and by extension those that hold the power in the world—have not changed much in centuries. The Oxford setting is overflowing with buildings rich in history, Apple laptops sitting side-by-side next to rows of old books, and for the centerpiece dinner, the Riot Club boys dress up in classic garb. This extends to issues of race as well, as it’s suggested that one of the Riot Club members could never be President because he’s Greek. There’s even a class system within the elite.
While the script by Laura Wade (adapted from the stage play Posh) is certainly high-minded and tackles hefty, controversial issues, Scherfig still manages to make The Riot Club wonderfully entertaining. The first half of the film almost has shades of Animal House and other fraternity-centric collegiate pictures, albeit imbued with the high-class aesthetic of an elite British university. There’s a strong level of humor on display, and Douglas Booth in particular shines cast as Harry, the “ladies’ man” of the Riot Club, flirting with beautiful women left and right.
Scherfig does a swell job of capturing the “boys will be boys” tone of the club itself while always layering in shades of how this relates to the world as a whole. There’s a brief shift to the working class point of view by way of the owner and waitress (Downton Abbey alum Jessica Brown Findlay) of the small, family-owned gastropub at which the centerpiece dinner takes place. It’s a nice attempt to underline the film’s themes, and while it’s not harmful to the film overall, I’m not sure it’s ultimately necessary to making the story more impactful.
But the kicker with regards to the members of the Riot Club is that, despite their absolute gluttony in every sense of the word, they will surely be the movers and shakers once they graduate college. Important People beget Important People, and a membership in an elite society such as this ensures that you will most likely be well taken care of for the rest of your life. We see it in our society every day: the rich and powerful are not punished by the law in the same way that others are. Everything is negotiable.
While The Riot Club doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, it’s at least highlighting an issue that many seem unwilling or unable to discuss out loud. There is plenty of humor and fun to be found within the debauchery, and Scherfig is buoyed by wonderful performances all around that display a wide range of emotions, but ultimately the film tells a depressingly familiar story. Same as it ever was.