TIFF 2014 REVIEW: 'The Riot Club'


In Canada, we’re usually fairly proud of our British heritage. We have the same Queen, we share similar tastes in food and culture, and we even match how they spell certain words (I’ve always thought it gives the language some flavour).

But one thing we don’t really have in common is a strict social hierarchy – to be sure, there are plenty of divisions between rich and poor, but unlike the U.K., wealthy Canadians don’t have the hundreds of years of political or family history that British elites often use to oppress the “lower classes”. It’s here where we borrow certain ideas from our neighbours to the south: in Canada, there seems to be a more pronounced sense of working hard to achieve wealth, as opposed to being lucky enough to have it already.

Now, because this is a review of a film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, I don’t want to tumble into a massive argument over income inequality and skirt the real topic: the new film The Riot Club, directed by Lone Scherfig (One Day, An Education). But it’s useful to sketch out the differences between the location of the premiere and the setting of the film, as a means of pointing out how the movie acts as a ticket into a wholly unfamiliar realm, yet one that’s (unfortunately) based in reality.

The Riot Club is the story of two young inductees into the titular elite dining club at Oxford. Founded in memory of a libertine named Lord Ryot in the 18th century, the group is made up of a rotating assembly of ten super-rich students at the university, and has become known over the years for feats of extreme excess. The stated goal of the club is to eat and drink until they’re sick, followed by having promiscuous sex with whichever women they can convince to spend time around them. And if they’re not indulging in vices, the Riot Club is committed to wanton destruction; its members boast of being banned from most venues in the city of Oxford.

Despite the general populace frowning on the exploits of the club, due to the family money and reputation that each member wields, they’re used to getting away with everything. It’s into that world that Miles (Max Irons) and Alastair (Sam Claflin) wade; Miles does so cautiously, being more well-adjusted and less dependent on his family connections, while Alastair embraces the debauchery whole-heartedly. Alastair immediately begins using the power of the club to feud with Miles and to build a future career within the circles of the rich and powerful. Miles must decide whether it’s worth letting the club corrupt him for the sake of the influence it promises.

Alastair (Claflin) is easily seduced by the power of the club, while Miles (Irons) slowly finds it disgusting.

At the heart of the film is the quintessentially British issue of the relationship between nobility and the common people. It’s been examined in detail in countless aspects of society, with the ITV series Downton Abbey being one of the most successful cultural treatments of the past few years. In fact, Downton alum Jessica Brown Findlay appears here in a more domestic role as one of the embattled middle-class people who has to deal with the club.

The wealth issue is pervasive enough that an earlier title for The Riot Club was Posh, the word Brits apply to things seen to be overtly classy and pretentious. And it’s not hard to understand how the film taps into a deep-seated antagonism between the classes, articulated in the film in a furious speech by Claflin (who loves the idea of the poor licking his boots) and in a beleaguered defense by a Scottish pub owner who finds himself in the club’s sights.

If you were planning a double feature, The Riot Club would actually be a good companion film for Martin Scorsese’s unforgettable takedown of American privilege, The Wolf of Wall Street. Scherfig succeeds in adapting the lessons of that film to very different sphere: British academia. Whereas Wolf was a cautionary tale about the grown men and women of the financial sector, The Riot Club proves that there are plenty of communities that need a wake-up call, like these young men in the formative stages of their careers.

In both films, the scenes of excess are hard to watch (though Scherfig uses considerably less nudity and drug use), but Riot is notable for a terrifying scene when Miles’ girlfriend (Holliday Grainger) is manipulated by a club member into dropping by one of their dinners. Crucially, the director doesn’t resort to exploitation – she prompts reactions in the viewer through implication rather than lurid visuals, and after the three and a half hours of Wolf, I appreciated seeing the theme of overpowering wealth handled in a subtler way.

Narratively, The Riot Club builds and builds to its climactic dinner scene, which arrives in waves over 20 to 30 minutes of screen time. But once the morning comes, and the club is left to deal with the violent consequences of their party, the film begins to run out of steam, almost like an undergrad with a hangover.

Scherfig ties off a few loose ends and leaves others dangling, as if to suggest the inequality pointed out in the film is something we’ll never completely resolve. But after the strong performances and caustic writing that came before left me wanting a more powerful finish.  Unless that’s part of Scherfig’s argument: members of the upper classes can party all they like, but the drabness of real life catches up with everyone eventually. The Riot Club gets three and a half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

The Riot Club just had its world premiere at the 39th annual Toronto International Film Festival – if you’ve had the chance to see it, what did you think? Was it a damning look at the modern British upper classes? Or has the concept been better represented in other works? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!