Socioeconomic struggle writ large in every scene, The Riot Club feels as if it is trying too hard to make viewers hate the super rich. As if the pompous attitudes adopted by these young men (almost justifiable given their obscene wealth) is not enough to earn our scorn, Laura Wade’s adapted screenplay is packed with misogyny, violence, ignorance, and centuries of prominence-turned-sociopathy. With a condemnation of aristocratic hedonism, Lone Scherfig’s film follows a group of young men (not unlike Monty Python’s famous “Upper-Class Twits”) whose sole purpose is to engage in debauchery.
Miles Richards (Max Irons) comes from a posh family. As yet another member of his family to begin his schooling at Oxford, Miles is desperate to shed his privileged visage in favor of a more modest one. Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) is also a first-year student from an influential family, however, his only concern is besting his older brother’s significant reputation. Cue “The Riot Club.”
Founded in Honor of Lord Ryot, the club’s sole purpose is the progressive one-upmanship of dubious revelry. Consisting of ten members from the upper echelon of Oxford’s undergraduates, the club is in need of two new members. Pulling Richards away from his new, underclass girlfriend (Holliday Grainger as Lauren) and closing the gap between Ryle and his brother, the Riot Club is an unstoppable force. Often mentioning how they have been kicked out of every establishment in the vicinity of Oxford, the Riots head out to the country for their initiation dinner, and the small-town pub — along with Richards — have no comprehension of their severe mistakes.
Shot like an ominous entry in the Harry Potter franchise, the majesty of Oxford’s campus is hinted at but never fully utilized. Adapted from Laura Wade’s play, one really gets a sense of a small-scale, intimate story in The Riot Club, which is told almost exclusively in dialogues. A slow burn of the highest order, the impending disasters of the inaugural dinner is always on the horizon; a looming figure in the distance promising much more than it could hope to deliver. We are always offered the fantastic pieces of stories but only privy to the punchlines (“and then we woke up in Vienna, face down in a box of marzipan!”) — legends and tall-tales stained with the fond exaggerations of nostalgia. Building us up for an impossible conclusion, The Riot Club becomes a meta-mockery of these stupid young boys, and their inane aspirations. Surely no Riot Club event was ever truly stupendous with such blinding amounts of alcohol and drugs compounded by the fog of time.
When performed on stage at a public theatre, The Riot Club is surely an incredible actor’s showcase. Lengthy monologues (club toasts), hushed conversations (a quarreling Miles and Lauren) and boisterous merrymaking at the dinner all serve to highlight the lead actors’ dynamic range. Unfortunately, when adapted for the screen, interest must be artificially injected, and the drama of live theatre becomes the melodramatic sub-plots of a feature film. Max Irons’ Richards is seemingly too concerned with a girl he just met, and the hinted-at homosexual relationship between him and Sam Reid’s Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt serves no discernible purpose to furthering the narrative. Sam Claflin is the menacing core of The Riot Club, and the highlight of the film’s many talent-filled performances. Part brooding college freshman, part angrily disenfranchised billionaire, Claflin is terrifically awful. With shifty glances from afar, quiet scheming in plain sight and a loud, hate-filled tirade about the war on the rich, Claflin’s Ryle is deliciously easy to hate.
A somewhat uneven protest of English nobility, and a denouncement of nepotic privilege, The Riot Club’s message is a redundant one: unchecked, inherited wealth leads to problems. Unable to argue more than “bad people are bad,” Laura Wade’s story is far better off on a live stage — far away from the movie theater.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.