The Riot Club
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Opens March 27
In The Riot Club’s centerpiece, the ten young men of the titular Oxford semisecret society have rented out the private back room of a country pub. “Fucking Reservoir Dogs!” one exclaims as they roll up, decked out in velvet-collared tailcoats, and pose for photos; as a hush falls around the sound of the shutter clicks, director Lone Scherfig imbues an uneasy sense of consequence into their self-mythologizing. Because they are mythic—the photo restages a famous 80s group portrait of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and the assorted barons and billionaires of the real-life Bullingdon Club.
Despite changing times, the ancient Riot Club tries to live up to its hedonistic legacy: champagne, barf bags under each seat, sexual conquests more boasted-of than actual, a little noblesse oblige and a lot of condescension towards the red-faced landlord of the Bull’s Head. Screenwriter Laura Wade brings together class-wide and individual resentments that are not exhausted by the dialogue, which sees the “no politics” bylaw increasingly ignored as the action escalates from imitative debauchery to blind rage, the characters channeling a history of privilege, and a wolfpack mentality, to access supra-individual reserves of entitlement.
This single-location sequence, so self-contained in its allegory of the English caste system, is obviously transplanted from Wade’s 2010 play Posh. The movie gives us a before and after, building up the character of Miles Davis Richardson (Max Irons), at the expense of ensemble dynamics—ten undergrads is a lot for a bladder-length feature film, though most of the assembled Brit Pack efficiently project their dominant traits (upper-class twit, City boy, nouveau riche Mediterranean, latter-day Wilde…). Miles’s seduction speaks to the allure of the Club’s elitist charisma and ritual—which, naturally, is “massively homoerotic,” but marked by cruel wit, crueler cheekbones, and rakish excess—the better to set up the past-life Cleopatras in the audience for a violent reversal.
Wade and Scherfig (whose An Education likewise played bait-and-switch with youthful pretensions to greatness) also elaborate on how the other half lives. Holliday Grainger, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Natalie Dormer, all familiar faces from TV upper-crust fantasies, play, respectively, a middle-class girl, a working-class girl, and a working girl, who each in turn refuse to the Club’s money, in scenes whose firsthand sense of female pride breathes a little fire into this sometimes didactic dissection of the Old Boys network.