An elite club populated by the best and brightest – or at least the richest and most (literally) entitled – of Oxford University; banned from campus and every nearby venue for their wild and destructive behavior; young men groomed for power, who grow up believing that money can buy them anything, including immunity from the law.
This is not the fictional Riot Club of the film’s title, but the real-life Bullingdon Club, which has featured such luminaries as the current Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Mayor of London, all of whom have done the best to distance themselves from the now-infamous institution, whose charming initiation apparently involves burning a £50 note in front of a beggar.
Adapted from Laura Wade’s 2010 stage-play Posh, Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club is an exploration of the darker side of privilege. Not so much has changed since the 18th Century, in which the Riot Club was founded; the film opens with period debauchery and a cameo from Games of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd.
The film as a whole is redolent of Barry Lyndon; seeming to have been shot by candlelight. In fact, the immediate difference between now and the era of powdered wigs would seem to be that the poor (and women) can vote – a development more than a few members of the Riot Club would assuredly disagree with.
New pledge Miles is played by Max Irons, son of Jeremy, and he’s not the only scion of an acting dynasty caught up in proceedings: there’s also Freddie Fox as the weaselly blond president of the club (his opening speech explicitly acknowledges the shadow of his forebears). Miles, however, is likable if smug; quickly getting loved-up with middle-class northerner Lauren (Holliday Grainger).
He would be a happy, harmless posho if not for the attentions of the rakish, Latin-spewing Hugo (Sam Reid) – a latter-day Lord Henry. Then there’s the loathsomely supercilious, quietly seething Alistair (Sam Claflin).
Amidst the Bacchanalian rites, the pranks, hijinks, and assorted fops and idiots, it’s Alistair who brings out the club’s ugly, dangerous side. The Riot’s Club second act takes place at a dinner party – the center-piece in Posh – in which a long-suffering pub landlord and his daughter (Downton’s Jessica Brown Findlay, now on the other side of the class divide) become the objects for a dangerous sort of contempt.
The film’s binary commentary on the toxic British class system is simplistic, even patronizing – the poor have integrity; the rich have money – but the portrayal of mob rule in shirt and tails is nevertheless a powerful one. There’s a subtle, almost unbearable eliding of tension, building with every snide comment and resentful look; Miles becomes the audience surrogate, horrified, unable to act, but also complicit.
When Alistair accuses the world of wanting to be them, it might not quite be the case; nevertheless, we’ve sat through every smashed glass, every bottle of port poured over ones head before an astonished choir, and not looked away – we’ve reveled.
Despite initial appearances, The Riot Club is far more than just posho porn; the denouement ever has undertones of A Clockwork Orange – “Arestes Fideles” will never sound quite the same. Tom Hollander as MP Jeremy Villiers is almost the worst of them; that same ideology camouflaged, made palatable to the general public. It’s in him that The Riot Club finds its significance: he’s the Cameron-liked embodiment of an outdated, old-boys mindset surviving. He’s what these callow youths may become in time.
The Riot Club may be lacking in subtlety, but, with commanding direction and uniformly excellent performances, it’s a cinematic tour de force. If nothing else, The Riot Club is the film this year most likely to make you reconsider voting Tory; for a polemic, it’s startlingly effective.