The Riot Club
- Max Irons as Miles
- Sam Claflin as Alistair
- Douglas Booth as Harry
- Holliday Grainger as Lauren
- Natalie Dormer as Charlie
- Jessica Brown Findlay as Rachel
- Tom Hollander as Jeremy
A dark and often uncomfortable film set within a secret Oxford society of toffee-nosed young men, The Riot Club has currency undoubtedly. And while the direction is confident at burrowing into this world and the performances pretty good, it never quite pulls together as a film which ultimately knocks it down in estimations.
Two young men, Miles and Alistair begin their first years at Oxford University. Both boys are from prosperous backgrounds but are very much opposite in terms of attitude; Miles is an amiable guy, who despite being from money, is quite open-minded and funny, while Alistair is a surly, resentful guy with a massive chip on his shoulder. Starting life in university, they both begin to hear of The Riot Club. It is a secret society that has been going for centuries and is dedicated to debauchery, drinking and selfishly bad behaviour. The club needs ten members each term and at the minute, there are only eight people. Slowly, both boys are coerced into the club, which gets away with most of its activities through the use of money and entitlement. Now proper members, they are invited to the celebration dinner that the club hosts every year. As they have been banned from quite a few establishments for misdemeanors in the past, they settle on a pub and take their hedonism to the back room. As the night progresses, things begin to get out of hand very quickly. And when a shocking act of violence is committed, it threatens to shatter the club to the very core and tear their futures apart.
Having directed the perceptive An Education, Lone Scherfig transfers her skills to this cruel subject matter. Her direction is quite adept as she shoots from something of an outsider’s point of view; getting us to sneak into this debauched world of privilege and abhorrence, even if we don’t understand it. Scherfig is at her best when it comes to the crux of the film, which is the annual dinner scene where the dramatic heft comes in. Playing with whirling camera angles and too close for comfort close-ups, she intelligently gets across the scathing attack on the rich, who have no cares but their own and don’t give a damn about who they hurt. It is the best part of an uneven movie and one that savagely builds to violence. Before that, the pace takes a little bit too long to get really going and you may find yourself losing interest. At least when the dining scene hits, it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you in. If most of the film had been confined to this extended scene, then the claustrophobic impact may have hit a little harder than it actually did. The script from Laura Wade, and based on her own play, takes vicious aim at the class system, a culture of entitlement and the accountability of actions. Yet while this barbed snarl comes through loud and clear, it unfortunately feels rather heavy-handed and not quite as perceptive as it likes to think it is. Most of the characters in the eponymous club are rich, snotty and ultimately vile human beings and while that may be the point of them, you don’t half feel a bit sordid watching them behave this way. The main character of Miles is the one closest thing to a hero as he is the most at odds with everything and slowly becomes aware, but he is by and large the only real character to like. All the rest, you really just want to reach through the screen and thump for their arrogance. A bit more bite in the writing may have lifted The Riot Club higher, but it never quite gets beneath the themes that it raises. In the end, a lot of it just feels like another boys behaving badly film that has been done to death over the years. A quietly intriguing and bristling score at least brings some much-needed tension and irony to the film.
What gives The Riot Club extra points is most of the cast. Max Irons plays the mainly upstanding member of the group who is seduced by the adventure at first, but then begins to feel disillusioned when he sees how vile it really is. Irons does a commendable job that makes you feel sympathy towards him as he realises the wrong that the club revel in, even if it is a little too late once chaos erupts. Sam Claflin is equally as marvellous, tearing up the screen little by little as a young man who feels inferior and acts out in a snobbish way to get some form of power. His vitriolic speech in the middle of the film where he boasts of his elitism and disdain for the poor is a pretty damn fine piece of acting. While the other members of the group blend into each other with their shared nastiness and pompous snobbery, Douglas Booth stands out playing the raffish one who is never far from a lady. The Riot Club has only around three female parts and while none of them are a particular stretch, the actresses inhabiting them do a commendable job. Holliday Grainger essays the role of Max’s less well off girlfriend who while sweet can spot a mile away that his involvement in the club will only lead to a downfall. Natalie Dormer has what amounts to a cameo as a prostitute who quite rightly puts the boys in their place and clearly won’t take no guff. The last girl is Jessica Brown Findlay as a waitress who also doesn’t take well to the harassment and attitude of the disreputable toffs. Tom Hollander has an eye-catching cameo here that makes the most of his time on screen.
Appropriately dizzying and disquieting as it is, along with confident direction, The Riot Club simply doesn’t have enough within it to make it stand out and could have been telegraphed better. And given the nasty characters, the film can be repulsive to many and it never reaches the levels of bitter satire that it aspires too.