Directed by: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Jessica Brown Findlay, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Tom Hollander, Douglas Booth, Holliday Grainger, Sam Reid
An adaptation of Laura Wade's cult stage play Posh, The Riot Club is loosely based on a notorious Oxford society, The Bullingdon Club, many of whose members have gone on to a career in politics, most notably David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Each year the club would venture out to a pub located far enough away from the University for the landlord to be unaware of what to expect from his guests. Through the course of the evening, the establishment would be trashed, with a cheque written to cover renovations at the end of the night. Wade's play is based around a fictionalised version of one such evening, as is Lone Scherfig's screen adaptation.
Whereas the play opened on the scene of the dinner itself, Scherfig's film begins at the University, where we are introduced to the key players. Nice guy posh boy Miles (Irons) falls for down to earth Northern lass Lauren (Grainger). Not so nice posh boy Alistair (Claflin) is paired, much to his chagrin, with Miles for a University project, clashing over their opposing views on the welfare state. Both young men are approached by members of the Riot Club; Alistair because he's the younger brother of a previous "legendary" member, Miles because the only gay in the club wants to get into his pants. After a particularly vile initiation, involving the imbibing of various bodily fluids, Miles and Alistair are inducted, and the club sets off to a rural gastro-pub for their annual raucous dinner.
In this opening act, it's unclear whether Scherfig wants us to laugh along with the club, feel repelled by them, or a little of both. After all, their conduct is no worse than the "heroes" of your average Hollywood frat boy comedy. The Riot Club chaps are certainly no more repellent than the characters in movies like Project X, 21 & Over and That Awkward Moment. It's when they arrive at the scene of their impending crime, a middle of the road pub/restaurant run by a Basil Fawlty-esque social climbing landlord, that any remote feelings of empathy we might have had for the club are lost. Alistair lays out his hatred of the lower classes, and though the rest find his views somewhat extreme to begin with, he gets them on his side when the landlord tries to pawn them off with a sub-standard 10 bird roast. The ensuing mayhem resembles something from a 70s horror movie, and manipulative though it may be, it's impossible not to feel your blood boiling at the antics of these self-entitled gits.
This sequence is by far the film's strongest, which makes you feel the whole affair would have worked better had Scherfig confined all the action to this location, as the first act is an unnecessary introduction to two of the players, while the closing act, which deals with the repercussions of the fateful evening, can't compete with the preceding mayhem.
What's most interesting about The Riot Club is how it avoids the usual upper class versus working class dynamic, focusing instead on a battle from the unspoken cold war that exists between the gentry and the social climbing middle classes who envy them so much. It's a dynamic that we usually only see addressed in sitcoms like Frasier or Fawlty Towers, so to see it dealt with in a manner closer to the horror genre makes for an interesting diversion.
By Eric Hillis