Remember “An Education”? The 2009 movie that dashed for Oscar glory, made Carey Mulligan into a star, gracefully walked the tightrope of suspense and coming-of-age, and showcased the directing talents of Danish provocateur-esse Lone Scherfig? If you liked it as much as some of us with The Playlist did, you were most likely anticipating Scherfig’s latest project, “The Riot Club.” Well, check your expectations at the door when you walk into this one, because all of the star-making directorial grace Scherfig possesses is substituted for a bludgeoning attempt at provoking the British elite into taking a long hard look at themselves through a cracked mirror. She retains her confrontational sensibilities, with none of the subtlety, and hammers a single message to mind-numbing effect.
Max Irons plays Miles Richards, fresh out of prestigious Westminster and ready to assimilate himself into the culture of Oxford University. Simultaneously, Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) is another freshman moving in, though seemingly less eager than Max to kick off college lifestyle with a bang. The two boys become each other’s foils immediately, as their rooms get mixed up and Miles ends up in Alistair’s more luxurious quarters, much to the disdain of Alistair’s terribly bourgeois parents. After all, Alistair has a reputation to uphold and a famed big brother to live up to. No worries though, because Max happily switches rooms and turns his attention on flirting with Lauren (Holliday Grainger). Max and Alistair’s paths cross again when they are teamed up with the same professor and asked to write essays that will stimulate rigorous discussion. “Do we have to like each other?” asks Alistair, clearly not a fan of friendship, or perhaps just other boys who seem to have all the luck with the ladies while he broods in the corner.
Underneath this polished veneer of century-old architecture and Oxford decorum lies a tradition that began in the 17th century with Lord Ryot, a licentious fiend of a lord who fucked, snorted, and boozed his way through life, making debauchery into a spiritual art form. His death provokes contemporary lords and dukes to create a club in his name, and thus The Riot Club is born. In Max and Alistair’s present surroundings, the club lives on as a private society consisting of 10 boys, but two members short, the current club begins Operation Grasshopper to find a pair of new recruits to fill in the vacancies and continue the legendary tradition. When Max and Alistair become assimilated, the film shifts to its central location, a respectable establishment called The Bull Head, with the landlord and his daughter (Jessica Brown Findlay) on hand to serve the riotous bunch. Like an entire frosh-week-gone-wrong condensed into a single night, the wickedness spirals out of control, spurred on by the contemptuous Alistair, leaving Max in a no-shit-Sherlock state of regret.
Co-starring Douglas Booth, Natalie Dormer, Freddie Fox, Tom Hollander, and more, the film is based on the stage play “Posh” by Laura Wade, who used the real-life Bullingdon Club as a source of inspiration to tap into the ostentatious practices of the British upper class. Wade, who adapted her own play into the screenplay for “The Riot Club,” doesn’t make a smooth transition from stage to screen, as the non-cinematic elements only serve to numb the viewer even further with the film’s one and only design: rich people are dicks, and when they’re kids, they’re even bigger dicks. Of course, it’s up to Scherfig to create a compelling story with the tools of cinema at her disposal, but whether she felt constrained by the limits in Wade’s play, or merely wanted to stick to the story as closely as possible, her hesitation to experiment a little further, for the sake of broaching the subject deeper, is sorely felt. Oh, a fun little prologue featuring Lord Ryot kicks things off, but that’s as far as the innovation goes. Instead, the greatest assets the film has are the performances from Irons and Claflin, the latter in particular sinking his teeth into the vile role of Alistair, the boy you instantly love to hate. Worthy of mention is Sam Reid doing a bang-up job as the unapologetically homosexual Hugo, one of the senior members who takes a particular liking to Miles.
Apart from the performances, there is nothing much to latch onto in “The Riot Club.” The bitter sense of humor entertains, but overstays its welcome halfway through, though some of the incidents that occur in The Bull Head are appropriately distasteful and will doubtlessly conjure up the right kind of heated reactions from the audience, one in particular concerning Lauren. At one point, Alistair drunkenly declares how much he hates poor people. The simplicity and shallowness of this line perfectly sums up the whole point of the film. Ethical jabs at one of the most prominent first world countries in the world, and the foundations that helped spawn an entire empire, are exposed, at times in entertaining fashion, but rarely saying anything new. Some scenes are so blatantly direct they almost had us on our feet shouting, “OK! We get it! Can you move on now?” But it never does. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.