With An Education and One Day, the recent additions to Lone Scherfig’s impressive oeuvre have exclusively been subtle portrayals of the aspiration and naivety of college-age students. Her latest covers similar ground, albeit from a more scathing perspective, adapting Laura Wade’s 2010 play Posh, a loose dramatization of The Bullingdon Club that depicts a secret society of entitled toffs who aim to create a life of “debauchery raised to an art”. But what starts out as an entertaining glimpse into the corrupting influence of money and privilege fails to offer the insight that would tip it into legendary status.
Adapting her own play for the screen, Wade takes the opportunity to expand on her story by fleshing-out her two main characters. Miles (Max Irons) may have a posh accent and an even posher title but he’s determined to paint himself as an outsider upon his arrival at Oxford and so immediately channels his attention into pursuing a northern girlfriend. Alistair (Sam Claflin), on the other hand, arrives trapped under the shadow of his high-flying older brother and crushed under the weight of having to live up to his family name.
Both these wide-eyed freshers are recruited into the highly exclusive Riot Club, seduced by its camaraderie and its single-minded pursuit of hedonism, and while Miles initially looks to have the most intriguing story arc – his intense infatuation with ‘common Yorkshire girl’ Lauren (Holliday Granger) putting him at odds with the club’s elitist ideology – it is Alistair who becomes the film’s focal point.
As Miles gradually grows disenchanted with the club’s morally vacuous antics, Alistair goes the opposite way, becoming increasingly unhinged as the acceptance and recognition of his club mates proves to be a corrupting influence, adding an undercurrent of violent tension to his already overwhelming sense of entitlement.
It is still hard to see the attraction, though. Unpleasantness abounds in The Riot Club, providing a gruesome feast of deplorable actions and bodily fluids smeared on furniture. One of the more deplorable acts involves an initiation ritual in which a blindfolded Alistair must imbibe some wine and guess the vintage. The catch? The wine has been spiked with a cigarette butt, a vile of urine, bogies, phlegm and maggots. And that’s what they do to the people they like.
This, though, is just a light-hearted preamble to the film’s genuinely disturbing final act as the group’s developing degeneracy is funnelled into the annual club dinner, which involves members hiring out an unsuspecting gastro pub, getting wrecked, trashing the place and then paying for the damage without remorse.
Though this sequence feels undeniably stagy, it is still unbearably tense as the wine and spirits flow, and the gang become increasingly infuriated, first by a ten-bird roast that is one guinea-fowl short and then by a hired escort who refuses to satisfy their desires. When the club’s pent-up aggression does finally explode outward it is the pub’s put-upon landlord (Gordon Brown – not that one) who suffers their ire in an uncomfortably disturbing scene.
Despite what may sound like a viciously cutting portrait of privilege, The Riot Club really comes across as a blunt parody of the upper classes that barely scratches the surface of what must be an incredibly complex culture.
Unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, which also offered an unbridled depiction of the one-percent’s salacious partying but also uncovered the man behind it with depth and nuance, The Riot Club can only replicate the humorous take on a ridiculously frivolous lifestyle. As such, it fails to provide a sense of humanity, making Alistair too much of a sociopath and Miles too much of a spineless wreck to be relatable, and it never even attempts to understand the mentality behind their behaviour.
The Riot Club may entertain with its stinging satire of wealth and privilege, but merely indulging our base perceptions of the elite classes and failing to expand on who these people really are only makes for a rather hollow experience.
Running time: 107 minutes; Genre: Drama; Released: 19 September 2014;
Director: Lone Scherfig; Screenwriter: Laura Wade;
Starring: Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Douglas Booth, Jessica Brown Findlay.
Click here to watch the trailer for The Riot Club