Pop culture informs our perception of reality, and our reality informs pop culture. It’s a feedback loop that informs both the way we see the world and the way filmmakers tell stories. Films create tension by playing into, and occasionally betraying, these expectations built by film culture itself. The Riot Club plays into today’s cultural ethos, creating a portrayal of the elite run amok that is occasionally viscerally startling, but rarely actually surprising.
Based on the 2010 play Posh by Laura Wade, The Riot Club drops us into one of the world’s oldest institutions: Oxford University. It’s attended by more than 20,000 of the best and brightest, but there can only be ten in the Riot Club. Hundreds of years old, the club takes only the very best and promises them success and power, along with delusional levels of juvenile chaos. At the start of the film, there are two openings in the club. One is filled by Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games), the younger brother of a “legendary” Riot Club member. The other is filled by Miles Richards (Max Irons, The Host), a politically left young man not entirely comfortable with his parents’ wealth. But you aren’t just accepted into The Riot Club, you have to be initiated, and that’s where things start to go awry, both at the narrative and filmic level.
The Riot Club is a blunt instrument of social commentary; it hits hard but never cuts deep. The club is a bastion of the privileged right wing, an aristocratic relic in a world that has vilified the notion of old money. The two inductees, Alistair and Miles, serve as proxies for opposing ideologies, and if you can’t guess which one swings right and which one left, their names are always a good indication. The film even forces Miles and Alistair to debate left and right wing politics in an entirely unnecessary scene. This is not a film that calls for subtlety, which is a shame, because its cast is universally excellent.
Irons and Claflin serve as excellent foils, each turning in a strong performance. Director Lone Scherfig (An Education) pulls of an incredible feat by creating a group of ten young men who actually feel like members of a club. The Riot Club is comprised of some of the best young English actors today, Sam Reid (’71) and Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending) being stand outs. Unfortunately, The Riot Club never asks its members to reach beyond more than one degree of complexity. One member’s family is a shadow of its former opulence, another struggles to hide his homosexuality, and another faces prejudice for being Greek. It’s welcome shading to a fairly black and white story, but the film’s script, also penned by Wade, isn’t particularly interested in investigating them.
For more complexity, you’ll have to look beyond the club and at the proletariat. Holliday Grainger (Cinderella) is excellent as Miles’s girlfriend, Lauren, a student scraping to put tuition together. Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Downton Abbey) are both excellent as a hired escort and waitress, respectively. It’s a pleasant surprise to see such strong and complex female characters in a film predominantly about men, but it almost seems odd that Scherfig doesn’t do her protagonists the same justice.
Technical credits are solid all around. Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov keeps the camera moving whenever possible, creating a frenetic energy that does help to stave off the drudgery of a film that takes place in one location. The score by Kasper Winding balances traditional orchestral melodies with harsher, poppy tracks that help capture the world of these young men, pulled between old values and the recklessness of youth. However, this is a film that is determined to get out of the way of its script, pushing its ideas to the forefront. This decision to value substance over style is something I can usually get behind, but it pays off best when the film has something substantive to say.
The Riot Club is a film about confirming expectations about the wealthy, and because of that, all its attempts to be shocking fall unimpressively flat. The majority of the film revolves around an initiation dinner that fails to escape its theatrical roots. There’s quite a lot of pontificating about poor people and smashing of glasses, but by the time things start to get out of hand, the club members have devolved into cartoon characters embodying the very worst the upper class has to offer.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
The Riot Club isn’t so much a bad film as it is a disappointing one. It’s a cultural skewering that plays into our every preconceived notion. We enjoy films that fit into our perception of the world, and just because a film doesn’t go out of its way to challenge the audience doesn’t make it a bad film, but a lack of complexity does. For a film whose protagonists are almost all entitled, the film does little other than play into the cultural feedback loop that’s created our perception of the upper class. The Riot Club had the directorial and acting talent to be a fascinating portrayal of modern elitist youth. Unfortunately, without much complexity to speak of, the film is little more than a straw man, eager for us to knock it down.