“I’m sick to death of poor people!” the repugnant Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) roars to his comrades atop the opulent dinner table, sloshing his wine carelessly out of its vessel in the process. This loaded, incendiary harangue epitomises the deplorable attitude of The Riot Club. The film’s vulgar band of toffs are some of the most wretched characters ever seen on the big screen. Yet while the collective known as the “Riot Club” are totally void of any redeeming qualities, it’s impossible not view them without a hint of envy and intrigue.
Adapted from Laura Wade’s theatrical production, Posh, the Riot Club is an exclusive society for the “brightest and best” at Oxford University, but only for those from the correct pedigree. This means only students from Eton, Westminster or, at the very worst, Harrow are allowed in. Member Harry (Douglas Booth) confirms the club’s elite status when he muses that “there may be 20,000 people at the top university in the world, but only ten are in the Riot Club.”
In an effort to boost their depleted ranks, the club hone in on two unsuspecting freshers, Miles (Max Irons) and Ryle (Sam Claflin). Despite both heralding from a privileged background, they share few values. Miles is humble and accommodating to all walks of life while Ryle revels in snobbery as he grapples with the legacy of his revered older brother.
The two contrasting personas become initiated into the Riot Club after a selection of repulsive challenges. From there, the film heads towards its extended final scene at an isolated country pub called The Bull’s Club. The chosen venue for the club’s debauched dinner quickly becomes host to an orgy of booze, destruction and conceit.
Director Lone Scherfig and writer Laura Wade leave little doubt about their politics. The Riot Club parodies the infamously sketchy Bullingdon Club – which counts Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Mayor of London Boris Johnson as its alumni – in a scathing look at the upper echelons of British society. Just as this nation has been accused of revelling in ‘poverty porn,’ it’s equally intrigued by the posh and privileged as a guilty pleasure, typified by continued interest in the royal family and Made in Chelsea. The Riot Club indulges in the jealousy-inducing lifestyle before dismantling it with a traumatic level of vitriol.
Theatrical film adaptations often fail to translate the excitement or spectacle of their source material. Not so with The Riot Club which flourishes within the confines of its claustrophobic world. The tense dinner that dominates the film brings out the best in the young acting ensemble and climaxes in a genuinely disturbing frenzy that slams home Wade’s message.
You can divide The Riot Club in to two distinct sections: the long-winded, context-setting introduction and the enthralling crescendo that is the climactic dinner scene. The first half takes a jovial tone that runs on posh boy stereotypes with talks of ‘chundering’, ‘ledges’ and drinking piss-filled wine. This opulent display reaches its most absurd as one of the club’s members bowls up to university wearing a gilet, carrying a couple of dead pheasants and soppily baby-talking his pooch. There’s hardly a convincing moment in these early forays into Oxford’s inner sanctum. The arrival of working class student Lauren (Holliday Grainger) as Mile’s love interest in particular hints at the film spiralling into a shallow cash-in on class stereotypes.
It’s only when the action moves to its climactic stage at the Bull’s Head Club that the wobbly preamble’s value becomes apparent. Those one-dimensional Oxford boys slowly diverge from their faceless pomp as each one of the ten members contorts into their own distinctively awful brand of elitist entitlement. Tension that was embryonic and mostly harmless before flourishes into ominous unease with an increasingly sinister edge. If the first half of the film plays on our guilty interest in the rich and extravagant, then the second half condemns our foolish infatuation, scolding the viewer in the most shocking way possible.
Like a trip through Dante’s stages of Hell, the riotous dinner gets darker with a series of fraught exchanges. A prostitute is callously discarded as a “whore” for rejecting the boys, the gracious pub owner is insulted for his hospitality and Miles is viciously challenged by the truculent Ryle. It’s uneasy viewing as the boys’ audacity mounts and Miles’ personal life is exposed. But the harshest viewing lies in the final moments of dinner.
Owing to its theatrical origins, The Riot Club boasts a powerful script adapted by Wade herself. Still, it’s the youthful performances that are the film’s biggest draw. While all the boys are charmingly arrogant and engrossingly awful, it’s Sam Claflin who remains the most abhorrent throughout. He perfectly captures Ryle’s vengeful insecurity that drives the group to push the boundaries of moral acceptability. Wade’s damning indictment of the Riot Club is realised by these loathsome performances. There’s an odd irony as Ben Schnetzer and Freddie Fox impressively transform from working class heroes in Pride into right-wing aristocrats in The Riot Club.
For such a scathing reproach of an institution that breeds Britain’s leadership, there’s a surprising lack of political bite to the narrative. There’s a rushed attempt to balance the greater focus on upper class debauchery when Ryle is mugged at an ATM. It’s a clear effort to challenge the moral integrity of the working class, but it falls on deaf ears amongst the cacophony of smashing glasses and flaunted money. Rather than provoke a parallel narrative to challenge our natural prejudice toward the rich, Scherfig and Wade left me with with little option but to entirely resent the Riot Club.
The Right Club is a film that offers no salvation for the rich. It is a distressing look at how the world works. Wade suggests these awful people will inevitably get top jobs through their socialite connections and remain utterly unaccountable for their actions.
With roots in the real-life Bullingdon Club, The Riot Club is deeply uncomfortable viewing; the idea that these preordained snobs are running the country is a frightening revelation. Some will argue that the film is embellished fantasy unfairly aimed at the Conservative government and the maligned upper class, but oftentimes, the truth is worse than fiction. If The Riot Club is anything to go by, God help us all.
Movie Verdict: Win