My notes on Lone Scherfig’s classploitation film. NB: discusses plot twists, so spoiler alert!
Essentially, The Riot Club is Eden Lake for socialists, playing the class card the way the Daily Mail play the race card. Laura Wade’s play, which she adapts here, was called Posh, and the film deploys a selection of chiselled or chinless aristo types (including several ‘legacy’ male ingenues) to represent a hereditary elite whose legendary commitment to debauchery inevitably congeals from high-spirited vandalism and gross-out drinking games to hatred-fuelled violence.
A prologue deals with the Regency-era founding of the Oxford-based Riot Club — named after the young, brilliant and killed-by-an-angry husband Lord Ryot. Then, a teen movie/college film set-up not dissimilar to, say, Your Starter for Ten introduces contrasting poshos Miles Richards (Max Irons) and Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) as they turn up at Oxford and are pulled into the orbit of the exclusive club. Miles, though from a privileged background, is in favour of the welfare state and a bit embarrassed by his well-connected family, whereas Alistair resents his high-flying relations and hates the poor. Both have formative encounters with the lower orders: Miles gets a nice, sensible girlfriend with a Northern accent, Lauren (Holliday Grainger), while Alistair gets thumped by a cashpoint mugger (Tony Way) for lecturing him that ‘PIN number’ is a tautology. Both get inducted into the Riot Club, for family heritage reasons and other odd ties – Miles is fancied by prematurely tweedy Hugo (Sam Reid) and Alistair has a major government connection in his uncle Jeremy (Tom Hollander).
This is preamble to the action of the play, which takes up two-thirds of the film as the Club, banned from all the pubs and restaurants in town, go to an out-of-the-way gastropub for a feast that shows up their worst character traits. Irritated by petty people complaining about the noise, they make more and throw money at the landlord, but when a hired escort (Natalie Dormer) puts them in their place, Alistair steals Miles’ phone and texts Lauren to come rescue her boyfriend so she can be humiliated – Greek-born junior oligarch Dimitri (Ben Schnetzer) offers to pay off her student loans if she gives all ten of them blowjobs – and Miles loses his chance at a relationship. After an orgy of vandalism, Alistair initiates a brutal attack on a representative pleb, co-opting the others to join in. Miles calls for an ambulance, which involves the police, but it seems that the other nine – commanded by an undersized and not-quite-upto-it president (Freddie Fox) – would be happy to stitch up the most innocent of the gang to save their positions and future careers. Alistair is plainly supposed to represent the worst of the ruling class – consumed with paradoxical envy for the lower orders – but he’s also played as a manipulative sociopath who would be an utter bastard under any social circumstances (like the ringleader in Eden Lake). Early on, the film has a sense of how the privileged are also handicapped – ‘there weren’t any girls at your old school’ Lauren diagnoses after one inept attempt at conversation – and need to form their secret societies and trade on connections to survive. The figure of Hugo also shows that it’s status not money (he’s broke) that matters, whereas Dimitri has all the cash but still isn’t quite in the inner circle.
Once it gets to its main set, the dramatic devices become a bit too strained – everyone gets to speak in turn, showing themselves up, and the tragedies are heavily foreshadowed as the restauranteur is seen prizing all the items which will be smashed and preening on getting a booking from the upscale and free-spending Young Entrepreneurs. The last act – with echoes of the US versions of this story seen in The Skulls (and, generations back, The Brotherhood of the Bell) — is a bit untidy, as it keeps changing its mind about who should be punished or get away with it, only for it not to matter much anyway. It plays best as a grotesque semi-horror story, serving as useful contrast with the strain of hoodie-demonising scary underclass movies which have been around for the last few years.