Released 2014. Directed by Lone Scherfig. Screenplay by Laura Wade, adapted from her play, Posh. Starring Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Sam Reid.
Spoilers in the review, folks. Don’t fret, I’ll pay for the damage.
I once heard it said that all American stories are about race, while all British stories are about class. If there’s truth to that aphorism – and I think there is – then The Riot Club might be seen as an attempt to deliver the ne plus ultra of the British story. It articulates a hatred between quote-unquote “poor people” (also known as ‘the majority of the UK’) and the Bullingdon Club elite: the hatred of the poor coming from the characters; the hatred of the gentry coming from the film. It’s been an issue since long before I was born, but one which has experienced a surge in familiarity in the public consciousness since former Bullingdon Club member David Cameron took leadership of the Conservative Party. What’s different here is that it’s not dealt with as subtext or a secondary theme, as is typical. It’s actually quite remarkable and energising to see such a direct portrayal of a class distinction of which the entire country is aware and on which most people would surely declare an opinion, if not allegiance. The Riot Club attacks its theme from point-blank range…
… and yet it still manages to miss.
The Riot Club follows two new Oxford students, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin), as they join the exclusive (a strict ten members) Riot Club, the film’s analogue for the Bullingdon Club. Though both come from public schools – Miles Westminster, Alistair Harrow – their personalities are diametrically opposed. Miles is easy-going, mild and affable, swiftly striking up a friendship with Lauren (Jessica Holliday Grainger), a Northerner who views his background, with some amusement, as somewhat alien and tentatively asks him, “Are you… posh?”; Alistair is initially quiet, burdened by being only the latest in his family to pass through Oxford on his way to a powerful position somewhere or other, but later erupts in a cartoon rage, his belief in the superiority of his class culminating in a screamed rant about his hatred for “poor people” during a vicious physical attack on one. (It’s an outburst that makes sense, although the shift from timid Alistair to Hulk Alistair is far too rapid.) The film’s centrepiece is an extended Riot Club dinner in a private room at a country pub, its conclusion rather telegraphed from the moment you see the landlord proudly laying the table with his best china – and it’s he who is the eventual subject of Alistair’s frenzied ambush. Those hoping to see enacted the Bullingdon debauchery that they’ve only ever read about in every other edition of The Guardian are sure to find something to arouse here, but despite a sound premise The Riot Club is a flat experience.
(It wasn’t until the closing credits that I knew The Riot Club was adapted from a play, and that revelation helped me make a little more sense of its structure. The film is roughly in two halves. In the first we meet our characters over the course of several days; the second details that single night out, dining at the gastropub. It’s certainly got the ring of a play to it – ‘Act 2: A giant scene set around a dining table’. Not knowing this, however (and, as I’ve admitted in previous reviews, maybe being a bit thick) meant that I spent much of the dining scene wondering what would happen once we left, assuming that this was just one of several examples of debauchery that would be depicted. With hindsight I think the film is well-structured and similarly well-paced, but the early segments of the dining scene don’t have enough weight to them to feel truly worthy of a centrepiece. It takes a long time for the scene to escalate; time worth taking to do so – extensive set-piece scenes of this nature are an utter joy when done well – but time that isn’t spent as productively as it could be.)
As a British counterpart to Martin Scorsese’s satire of the American financial elite, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Riot Club‘s deficiencies are amplified. The British film’s weaknesses are exposed through similarities, its failings through differences. Both films critique groups of people for whom money is no object, power is a drug and consequences are barely a consideration. Neither can be said to be at all subtle about it, yet Wolf is truly substantial while Riot is disappointingly blunt. The former film makes grotesque excess the mode through which its satire functions, situating its audience within the completely distorted world in which its characters operate; the latter depicts similar antics but always feels distant from it. Where Wolf wants us to live in that world for three hours and question ourselves about how we truly feel about it, Riot is content to sit alongside us as we observe from the sidelines and tut.
It may come down to a significant difference between the American and British upper classes: barriers to entry. In America, anybody can achieve anything, so the story goes, if they only work hard enough (and, as Wolf expresses, aren’t shackled by such minor hindrances as morals). In the UK, if you’re not born into it, you’re not getting into it. Riot knows this – several characters make reference to their familial predecessors at Oxford, family ties to the Riot Club in particular, and we even meet one or two family members in high places. So while Wolf is potent, confronting us with the problem of why we condemn what we’re seeing when what we’re seeing is the American Dream, the ideal to which anybody can aspire, Riot doesn’t offer us such a fantasy, and we instead watch from the stands as a system we don’t understand and can have no part in, despite its influence over us and historical permanence, runs amok.
This is also The Riot Club‘s unique aspect, however, and arguably the film’s biggest fault is that it absolutely fails to interrogate why its characters behave and think the way they do, the fact that despite their titles and heritage these are still teenagers, how the nobility works, what the class system is built upon and why it thrives to this day. There’s even the briefest, and not unjustified, note of sympathy afforded to the students – the long shadows cast by their fathers, the pressure upon them to carry the family name and reputation – which is equally specific to the British upper class and equally avoided. It’s an enormous subject absolutely deserving of answers – I couldn’t tell you that I know many of them – and to show no interest in even asking the questions is either a missed opportunity or something that the filmmakers weren’t confident they could do. (Having not seen the original play and knowing nothing about it, I’m reluctant to blame writer Laura Wade specifically – unlikely though it is, maybe all of the substantial parts were dropped from her adaptation). But I’d take a weak attempt over a non-attempt. The Riot Club is only interested in showing us the surface of this world. It won’t take us any deeper.
The film’s conclusion is confirmation that it’s pandering to the audience rather then seeking to provide food for thought. Again, a comparison with The Wolf of Wall Street is instructive: Scorsese’s film sends its protagonist to prison, but it’s not the hell it ought to be. Prison, it turns out, is pretty damn comfortable if you’re wealthy. Unfortunately, audiences tend to see a wall of separation between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’, with films firmly occupying the latter side, and don’t take kindly to ‘art’ endings that ask them to think critically. (“I paid my money, now punish these horrible bastards for me so that I can live vicariously through the film!”) The Riot Club doesn’t make Scorsese’s mistake. They’ve got Miles, a nice version of a posh lad, one who can be friends with normal people, who’s not totally sure about the Riot Club but who tentatively joins, who partakes of excessive drink and one or two drugs but who maintains the soundness of mind to be shocked at the wanton destruction of a pub. (I’m not suggesting he’s a contrivance at all. It’s perfectly true, and worth mentioning, that the view of posh or wealthy people as sickening, out-of-touch, entitled swines is not fair and too easily applied more widely than it should be – but the film damn well makes sure to include Miles as our sympathetic ear in the Riot Club’s world.)
When the psychopathic Alistair knocks the landlord unconscious, Miles summons an ambulance and – deliberately and against the clear advice of other Club members – the police, and everyone sobers up immediately. It’s clear that they’re in trouble, repercussions are on their way, and they need to get their story straight. While they attempt to scapegoat Miles (as innocent as a Riot Club member can be, which would make for an interesting ending), Alistair is – conveniently – arrested on the strength of some DNA found on the landlord’s hospitalised body, and the other nine members emerge from the episode having only – what else? – to pay a fine for damages. It sounds like the film’s letting them off, but it makes sure they’re hanging their heads in shame, so we know that they know they’ve gone too far. It is the case though, that Alistair, a genuinely dangerous person and the chief wrongdoer, doesn’t seem to suffer all that much, and is assured by his MP uncle of not only a career but personal infallibility – “People like us don’t make mistakes”. The Riot Club is at best trying to have its cake and eat it, providing the comeuppance we want to see with the downbeat message, a reminder of the Bullingdon elite’s power.
Although the IMDb informs me that there is no US release on the horizon, a part of me wonders whether the film had American audiences in its sights during the making. It would make more sense of its bluntness, and the fact that it only really tells me what I already know. For the British audience, it’s an illustrated article about the Bullingdon Club – not offering anything that we’re not really familiar with. But elsewhere? My perspective on this is limited and I’m happy to be educated on the matter, but I rather get the impression that Americans would look at the Riot Club types and see cute English people wearing silly costumes and acting as antediluvian artifacts of bygone eras. They’d be right, I’ll concede, but they’d be wrong not to understand the truly frightening power these people wield. We don’t find their antics cute. We recognise that they’re at the core of a major social, cultural and political problem in the UK. These students come from and are destined to become the ruling class, and the lack of understanding of that in countries with no gentry might well necessitate such blunt storytelling instruments as sexual assault and near-murder. To me it seems like overkill. To others it might be the heft required to properly establish that these are not the cute English people you thought they were. If this is the case, it gives more purpose to the film’s cartoonishness, but it means that in the pursuit of cross-cultural understanding a more interesting, intelligent film may well have been sacrificed.
(A disclaimer of sorts: That paragraph was brought to you by our sponsors, Thinking Out Loud, and Not Believing Americans To Be Stupid, I Promise. Of course not. My vague point is that I wonder whether there’s a significant enough danger of cultural misunderstanding here that storytelling of no subtlety is genuinely the only option to ensure the film’s premise is properly conveyed.)
Make no mistake. The Riot Club cannot be recommended on the strength of its storytelling, aesthetics, character depth or any technical virtue other than reasonable lighting and a talented cast, but it may be worth seeing simply for the fact that it exists. It articulates a very common perspective on a very rarefied and important element of Britain, both historically and contemporarily, more directly than I can recall seeing for some time, if ever. That’s notable. The Riot Club is a 107-minute political cartoon, and like all political cartoons, it’s drawn in very broad strokes, offers little by way of nuance… but is worth a glance.