TIFF14: The Riot Club

The Riot Club is kind of like a serious, British version of The Wolf of Wall Street. They’re both about rich and powerful people behaving very badly, abusing their wealth and social privileges in excesses of debauchery. That said, Wolf’s focus on upward mobility is nowhere to be found in The Riot Club.

For the Riot Club, you see, is a secret club at Oxford dedicated to debauchery. Its members are 10 carefully-selected students, all from the best prep schools, all upperclass or “posh.” The narrative device that allows the audience to enter into this world of exclusivity is the initiation of two new members: the petulant, entitled Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) and Miles Richards (Max Irons, Jeremy Irons’ son), the closest the film has to a figure of conscience that the audience can identify with. Miles’s girlfriend (Holliday Grainger) may be a commoner, but he can’t resist the offer to join the exclusive club once he’s asked. The young cast is uniformly excellent, and I expect that a number of the young men will be groomed for star status very soon.

The film is an adaptation of the 2010 play Posh, and the titular club is a fictionalized-version of the real-life Bullingdon Club. It’s appropriate then that the pre-title sequence, depicting the sudden death of Lord Ryot (he’s caught with another man’s wife) and the formation of the club in his honour, has a parodic tone. It plays like a tongue-and-cheek version of a wig drama, but the rest of the film, set in present day Oxford, jettisons any overt parody for naturalism with a satiric edge. The contrast encourages the audience to see how ridiculous in many ways the current reality is. Ryle’s speech against “bloody poor people” exemplifies the blend of realism (you can imagine real-life elites feeling this way) and ridiculousness (you’ll see when you see the film).

The audience’s tsk tsks during the initial scenes soon became exhalations of disapproval, which turned into stunned disbelief as the film grew darker in the final scenes. After the screening, many in the audience were clearly bothered by the bad behaviour and injustice they had witnessed.

The real-life Bullingdon Club includes such former members as the current British Prime Minister David Cameron. This lends the film an air of controversy. As the film darkly indicates, in Britain the class system has not gone away. It’s merely less visible, adapted to a world that’s ostensibly democratic.

To return to my initial comparison, both The Riot Club and The Wolf of Wall Street might be described as excessive (The Riot Club for where it descends to, Wolf for its sustained insanity), yet in both cases the extremes of the plot and performances call attention to the excesses of their real-life targets. The real shock and frustration is how each film’s debauchery and depravity is unofficially licenced in our societies. Whether wealth and power is better in the hands of blue bloods or investment bankers, I’ll leave for you to decide.

9 out of 10

The Riot Club (UK)

Directed by Lone Scherfig; screenplay by Laura Wade, based on her play; starring Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Douglas Booth, Holliday Grainger, Jessica Brown Findlay, Sam Reid, Natalie Dormer, and Tom Hollander.

The Riot Club is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Gala Presentations programme.