By Preston Wilder
Bad behaviour is a tricky subject in films. We go to the movies to escape, live vicariously, so of course we want to see people sinking into sex, drugs and debauchery – but how to show rampant hedonism without bringing out the schoolmarm in viewers? John Belushi in Animal House was a legend, but you wouldn’t want him living next door to you (the Seth Rogen comedy Bad Neighbours hinged on exactly this problem). The Riot Club deals with the subject by playing politics, specifically a kind of inverse snobbery: bad behaviour is the province of spoiled young aristos – so the film can wallow in their antics with the mixture of envy and contempt Britons tend to feel for the upper classes.
“You’re not … posh, are you Miles?” asks new girlfriend Lauren (Holliday Grainger) – and Posh was also the title of the play (by Laura Wade) on which this is based. Lauren is smart (“Why did we bail out the banks?” she demands), Welsh and working-class, thrilled to be at Oxford on merit; her dad cried when he learned she’d got a place, she says, though “maybe it was just the tuition fees”. Miles (Max Irons) is perfectly nice, and he treats Lauren well – but alas, he is posh, a public-school boy and scion of a family who’ve been coming to Oxbridge for generations, so he gets headhunted by the Riot Club, an exclusive cabal dedicated to excess and “eating till we are sick at the full table of life”.
Danish director Lone Scherfig (best-known for An Education) seems fascinated by the codes and minutiae of the British toff class (another Scandinavian, Thomas Alfredson, was equally fascinated in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a couple of years ago). Posh people don’t say ‘dessert’, they say ‘pudding’. They’re intensely sensitive to the difference between Eton and Harrow – let alone Harrow and state schools, where the non-posh people go. The Riot Club wants to make a comment on dysfunctional Britain still ruled by a titled minority who consider themselves above the law. Trouble is, it stacks the deck shamelessly.
Take Alistair, for instance, played by Sam Claflin (a 20-something actor with a hint of Hugh Laurie). He’s Tory to Miles’s Labour – we know this because the film, inelegantly, puts them in the same tutorial and has them debate the NHS and the Beveridge Report – and seethes with self-pity at a post-Blair Britain ruled by “them”, the jumped-up plebs who won’t let him do what he wants. The film’s second half is the post-initiation dinner where the Riot Club welcomes its new members (Miles and Alistair), set – very implausibly – in the private room of an ordinary pub. Things get out of control as the lads set out to “carpe some f***ing diem”, and the landlord intervenes. “You’d like to be me, you just can’t admit it,” snarls Alistair, refusing to be silenced – and a film that truly explored the tortured relationship Britain has with its toffs might’ve been quite interesting. But then Alistair punches the landlord, which is typical of the script’s easy targets.
The Riot Club is often witty, but it’s very glib. Every non-posh person, from Lauren to the landlord and beyond, is decent and sensible; even a hooker turns out to be the most moral hooker in the history of the oldest profession. Meanwhile, the Riot Clubbers are swanning around their Van Dyck-laden mansions and blithely abandoning a sports car – “the ashtray was full anyway” – after someone vomits in it. The club is supposed to be for the “best and brightest”, but most of the members don’t look very smart (one is a harmless country-squire type, played by Jack Farthing in what may be the film’s best performance), and their shows of intelligence are all about Latin and big words anyway.
What does that leave? Bad behaviour, obviously – drinking and coke-snorting, eating lavish meals and trashing a room just for the fun of it. If this were Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson, the hedonism might be a badge of honour – but here it’s seen as another part of the evil System, a way for aristos to affirm their superiority before leaving Oxbridge, settling behind their “very big desks” and running the country. Alistair rants against the “bourgeois outrage” in Britain, cramping the style of pleasure-seeking guys like himself, and it’s meant as a sign of his horrible arrogance – but in fact he has a point, at least cinematically. The Riot Club is weighed down by crippling bourgeois outrage, using bad behaviour as a weapon in the class war, tut-tutting at these decadent young men and their sense of entitlement: “Posh twats!” snarls a mugger after robbing Alistair, and the film sides with the mugger. In the end, it’s just not much fun.
DIRECTED BY Lone Scherfig
STARRING Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth
UK 2014 107 mins