If you were wondering where all the nasty, unsympathetic, horrible movie characters had gone this year, then as it turns out, they’re all in The Riot Club. Just imagine Harry Potter, but without the nice people and the magic. You won’t be far off target.
It’s actually the story of a select club for the elite few at Oxford University. With a capped membership, and a reputation that extends back a good century or two, it turns out there are a couple of vacancies come the start of the year.
Cue two new first year students who emerge as possible candidates. Alistair, played by Sam Claflin, makes no bones about his life of privilege, and his belief that the rich deserve to be at the top of the tree. Meanwhile Miles, played by Max Irons, arrives at Oxford off the back of family pressure, but is less impressed by the displays of wealth and snobbery.
The two inevitably become early rivals, as gradually writer Laura Wade – who penned the screenplay based on her own stage play, Posh – exposes us more and more to the views and behaviours of the infamous Riot Club. It’s a very slow escalation, handled surely by Danish director Lone Scherfig. After her fumbled take on David Nicholls’ One Day, this is far closer to the standard she demonstrated with the excellent An Education, and there’s no point in The Riot Club where you don’t find yourself in some way transfixed by what’s happening.
It is far from a comfortable film to watch, and a hard sell too: films this harsh generally need at least one or two characters to cling to, to give us a more relatable way into the story. Yet Scherfig and Wade barely tick that box. This is a savage arrow to the heart of the establishment.
That said, there are glimpses of humanity and decency in the film, brief as they are, and they’re in the hands of the main female characters. Holliday Grainer is particularly impressive as Lauren, who’s come through state school and enters into a relationship with Miles (refusing his immediate advances however, reasonably arguing that neither of them wants to spend the next three years avoiding the person they had a fumble with in freshers’ week). Apparently a new character for the film, her story doesn’t get too much of the focus, but she’s an excellent counterpoint to what else is going on.
The film builds towards its biggest culture clash, as the ten besuited members of The Riot Club turn up in an out-of-the-way pub for their ‘dinner’. Here, the stage origins of the material shine through a little, as Scherfig slowly builds up the tension and intensity of the event. It’s the highlight of the movie: as the people round the table down more and more drink, she takes her time getting to things that the film’s horrible spoilerific trailer has less discipline in holding back.
The Riot Club, with its refusal to compromise in its exploration of humanity’s less pleasant side, feels not dissimilar in tone to some of the earlier work of Neil LaBute. You don’t necessarily get to the end credits ever wanting to sit through it again, but it’s a challenging, political piece of work, capable of inducing a variety of emotions, none of which are related to ‘warm’ and ‘happy’. Don’t expect it to feature too heavily in Oxford University’s prospectus…
The Riot Club is out in UK cinemas on the 19th September.
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