'The Riot Club': Toronto Review

The Riot Club Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

The Riot Club Still - H 2014

Watching rich boys behaving badly leaves a sour taste, more numbing than chilling

Upper-class hooliganism spins out of control into tribal violence in this dark drama from "An Education" director Lone Scherfig

TORONTO — Lone Scherfig showed a probing understanding of English life and class aspiration in her beguiling 2009 film An Education. Those strengths would make the Danish director seem ideal to tackle The Riot Club, a blunt examination of the toxicity of unchecked power, wealth and privilege, viewed through the prism of an elite Oxford University dining society famed for its debauchery. However, Laura Wade’s adaptation of her hit play, Posh, has sacrificed much of its savage comedy en route to the screen, and while the dark drama is never dull, its portrait of upper-crust entitlement run amok is seldom surprising either.

Much was made in the British press when Posh was produced — first at London’s Royal Court Theater in 2010 and then two years later in the West End — of the close parallels to the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive Oxford society that counts David Cameron and other national political heavyweights among its former members.

In the play’s original version, its sneering young conservatives were seething with resentment at the liberal policies of the Labour government. In the updated draft that transferred to the West End, which is more closely reflected in Wade’s screen adaptation, the Tory government has regained power. But the lingering influence of the New Left still feeds the characters’ smug condemnation of the struggling middle and lower classes.

To non-Brits, the story will play like Brideshead Revisited meets Donna Tartt’s The Secret History meets Lord of the Flies. Scherfig opens with a prologue that’s like a mini Restoration comedy, with a bewigged playboy getting caught in flagrante with somebody’s wife and dying by the sword as a result. Thus, to honor his name was born a ten-member undergraduate society known as the Riot Club. The group’s traditional function is to allow these “brightest and boldest” young men a final opportunity to disport themselves unobserved before they take up their rightful position in the corridors of power.

With two members having left college, the eight remaining Riot Clubbers comb the freshman ranks for new recruits. Applicants are unwelcome, given that those who have to ask are “generally not the right sort of chap.” While Alistair (Sam Claflin) is a natural fit, his brother having been a Riot Club legend, easygoing Miles (Max Irons) views the flattering invitation almost as a lark, his willingness to acknowledge the obsolescence of rigid class structures setting him apart. That distinction is apparent also in his choice of girlfriend, Welsh scholarship student Lauren (Holliday Grainger, appealing).

The centerpiece of the story, which doesn’t quite escape its stage conception, is a ritual dinner following initiation of the new members. This takes place at a gastropub outside the city, where news of the Riot Club’s antics hasn’t reached the unsuspecting owner (Gordon Brown). His waitress daughter (Jessica Brown Findlay), however, is quick to pick up on their condescension and cruelty. As vast quantities of booze are consumed and all vestiges of decorum discarded, the animalistic hunger of their entitlement turns ugly.

The screenplay isn’t shy about its intentions, with the dinner described as debauchery raised to an art form — an almost spiritual release. But somewhat too obviously, the grande bouffe zenith of the feast is marred when the diners discover that the traditional ten-bird roast (a bird within a bird within a bird, etc.) is short one guinea fowl.

The evening goes further awry when a hired escort (Natalie Dormer, impressive in her single scene) shows too much self-respect to provide group entertainment. After Alistair’s festering animosity toward Miles prompts him to drag the unwitting Lauren into the proceedings, sabotaging their relationship, things spiral further out of control. And beyond plausibility.

An anesthetizing inevitability creeps into the film as damning evidence stacks up that these “Wild Boys” (to quote a Duran Duran song that’s not the only on-the-nose music choice) believe they can buy their way into any pleasure of their choosing and out of any scrape of their making. That not-so-noble right is endorsed by Alistair’s uncle (Tom Hollander), a former club member who views scandal and shame as trivial setbacks to be swept under the rug with a little help from friends in high places.

The problem is that there’s not a lot of bite in all this, and while one central character reacquires his decency via some hard lessons, the far-from-revelatory conclusion is that the deck remains stacked in the class war. Duh. And the tension as the Riot Club’s code of silence is challenged and the group must seek a scapegoat fails to generate much dramatic heft in a film that’s woefully short on subtext.

Wade’s intention is to expose how even a culture of extreme privilege can be susceptible to the basest tribal instincts of degradation, destruction and violence as part of a threatened need to reaffirm its superiority. But while her screenplay bothers to develop a fully formed character out of principled everyman Miles, the most redeemable of the bunch, the others tend to blur.

Claflin’s weasely Alistair aside, the Riot Clubbers are defined only in broad outlines, giving the talented actors little to work with.

Hugo (Sam Reid) is a gay senior member from what he calls “the ragged end of the gentry,” his attraction to Miles instrumental in securing the latter’s admission. Dimitri (Ben Schnetzer) is a stinking rich hedonist whose Greek heritage makes him less of a purebred. Not so Harry (Douglas Booth), a champion fencer and fornicator from the old-money aristocracy, their stately home trafficked by tourists to pay for its upkeep. There’s a glimmer of humanity in George (Jack Farthing), whose family owns a farming estate, but not so much in club president James (Freddie Fox), who enthuses that he’s “very passionate about corporate finance.”

While locations in and around Oxford provide some stately backdrops, Scherfig and cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov show little interest in the picturesque, which makes thematic sense even if it yields a movie without much visual distinction. There’s a fine tradition of British educational institutions as a setting for perceptive drama about social hierarchies, the formation of a national character, and above all, the making and breaking of young men — from If… to Another Country to The History Boys (the latter onstage more so than onscreen). But The Riot Club is a minor addition to that canon.

Production companies: Blueprint Pictures, Film4

Cast: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid, Ben Schnetzer, Jack Farthing, Matthew Beard, Freddie Fox, Josh O’Connor, Olly Alexander, Jessica Brown Findlay, Holliday Grainger, Natalie Dormer, Gordon Brown, Tom Hollander

Director: Lone Scherfig

Screenwriter: Laura Wade, based on her play, “Posh”

Producers: Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin

Executive producers: Lizzie Franke, Steve Norris, Ivan Dunleavy, Thorsten Scumacher, Peter Watson, Sam Lavender, Tessa Ross

Director of photography: Sebastian Blenkov

Production designer: Alice Normingtom

Costume designer: Steven Noble

Music: Kasper Winding

Editor: Jake Roberts

Sales: HanWay Films

No rating, 106 minutes.