The Riot Club Dir. Lone Scherfig

[IFC Films; 2014]

Styles: drama, thriller
Others: prettified Robert Altman

Every country has their “thing,” that nagging little obsession that never seems to go away, and in the UK that thing is class. Class has been at the center of every debate on those isles since before 1066, and when you have a public school-educated Prime Minister and a national press that’s in hate with benefit claimants and asylum seekers, chances are it’ll still be around post 2066. To explain why that is would require the length and depth of a history, but this is a review of a film, so all that needs to be said is that the only thing uniting the English, Welsh, Northern Irish, and Scots is an abiding fixation on that elegant five letter word.

This film, by the way, is almost incoherent unless you understand that. Called The Riot Club, it’s actually about the Bullingdon Club, a real life association of young upper class undergrads formerly responsible for shitting out one current Prime Minister and another potential one. This is why an adaptation of a play starring a bunch of good looking YA-bait hunks is actually the only significant filmic statement on class to be made at this miserable point in British history. There are problems in the way the film is structured, but other than that, this is polemic disguised as riveting entertainment.

The protagonist is Milo (played by Max Irons, Jeremy’s son), a left-leaning fresher at Oxford invited to join the Club. The diners have only one rule at their debauches: no politics. Other than that, anything is fair game, and in the course of a long, long evening, the walls of a family pub are stripped of their paper, vomit is ejected onto every conceivable surface and into every conceivable container, a not quite ten bird roast is decimated and the pub’s proprietor is abused both verbally and then physically (as in he’s beaten nearly to death). Milo takes a back seat — he’s wasted and distraught at losing his working class girlfriend. Whipping the other club members into this righteous orgy of destruction is his rival Alistair (Sam Claflin), a fellow fresher who hates the poor and hates being made to feel guilty because he was born rich and will always be rich.

Paradoxically, this scene, at the heart of the film, is a magnificent achievement while at the same time being deeply flawed. The first act succeeds in creating a broad canvas, so much so that it occasionally resembles an Anglicized, prettified Robert Altman film. Then, when the characters head to the pub, director Scherfig hews strictly to the play. We remain in the dining room for an entire sequence with occasional cutaways to two new characters, the owner and his daughter. What’s frustrating here is that having done well to open up the narrative, Scherfig then encloses it, reducing potentially interesting characters to nothing more than sounding boards for the ideological struggle between Milo and Alistair.

It’s only a little frustrating, however, because Scherfig captures in such visceral fashion the malevolence of the drunken lad hive mind. The drinking games have a kinetic quality, but she also finds subtlety in a jealous glance or a nervous grimace. Alistair’s speech, where he rouses the apolitical mob to class war against the humble owner, is lensed like an inspirational moment from some other school movie — the only difference here is that Alistair’s worldview is repugnant, a defiant embrace of a worldview the upper classes would prefer to hide behind a Hugh Grant forelock. There’s a constant threat of violence, tinged with broad, vulgar comedy, and at times it resembles A Clockwork Orange, another film about a gang of lads given carte blanche to wreak whatever havoc they wanted.

In somehow transcending The Riot Club’s theatrical nature, despite working firmly within it, Scherfig has created the most terrifying film on Britain’s nagging little obsession — terrifying, because the fictional boys depicted here are only fictional by virtue of not being called David Cameron or Boris Johnson.

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