Starring: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Tom Hollander
Alistair (Claflin) and Miles (Irons) are both first year students at Oxford University; they are both from privileged backgrounds, but are polar opposites in personality and outlook. Alistair is a socially awkward snob who is happy to use his connections to land a top job in politics, while Miles is far more down to earth and open minded. Their conflicting social and political views often lead to the two of them coming to blows when debating against each other in class. Unbeknown to the other, they have both been invited through their meeting of fellow students to Oxford University’s infamous Riot Club, which has been going for hundreds of years and they treat “debauchery as an art form”. When the club has its annual dinner, the excessive drinking and drug taking, exacerbated by Alistair’s bitter hatred of Miles, leads to a night none of these ten unbelievably wealthy and spoilt young men will ever forget.
One of the age old problems in films is to have a film that features characters (whether that is a single protagonist or multiple protagonists such as the case here) that are, by definition, unlikeable. Sometimes these characters can be quite horrible, yet when watched they encourage the audience to embrace their own personal dark side and so that we may not like them, but feel empathy for them as there is a secret and dark part of us that would actually love to act in the same way as that character, even though that may be impossible in the real world for various reasons. I am not necessary saying The Riot Club does that, but if a film can, and there are far more unsuccessful attempts than there are successful, then it is possible to give us vile characters for company for 100 minutes or so, but yet we can still be engaged by the narrative of which these characters have been placed.
I have never seen Laura Wade’s play Posh, so I cannot comment on any (if there are any) changes between that and her screenplay for The Riot Club, but it is in its dark and biting rhetoric that The Riot Club is at its best in my opinion. Some of the scathing and often hilarious dialogue makes great viewing, it is just a shame it doesn’t go further. Of course only Laura Wade knows just how much serious political and social commentary there is in the narrative, but it often feels that when The Riot Club is starting to get nasty, it then chicken’s out. There is a class divide in Britain (it is something we have always been obsessed about) and there is a lot of resentment because of it on both sides, and The Riot Club sometimes starts to examine some dark truths about this, but consistently lacks conviction to follow through. This film may well start a conversation, and I am always the first to congratulate a film for letting the audience make their own conclusions, but it is a shame it almost seems wary of carrying on with the debate.
The characters themselves are likeable and engaging; don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t like them if I met them in real life, but Bullingdon Club comparisons aside, this is fictional drama and for 100 minutes I would challenge anyone to not even slightly want to be in the character’s rather privileged positions. Some of the characters and their childish humour is genuinely hilarious, this is mainly the supporting characters of course, but it does help to make The Riot Club very entertaining fun.
As Alistair and Miles, Sam Claflin and Max Irons are both excellent. Claflin (in my opinion the best thing about Catching Fire after Hoffman and Tucci) is a superb screen presence, and he embraces the bitterness and resentment that has almost poisoned Alistair. His drunken and aggressive conversation with a pub landlord being is a real stand out scene. Yet thanks to Claflin’s performance and the potential the dialogue has, his point of view sometimes feel justified. As good as Max Irons is, it always feels that his chalk is just a convenient narrative opposite to Sam Claflin’s cheese, ultimately leaving the character of Miles just not being as interesting (or I can imagine fun to play) as Alistair. The supporting cast of the other ten in the group are all excellent; with their character paths less clearly defined, the sudden changes from charming and funny to violent and dangerous give the film an extra edge of unpredictability. In a (very) supporting role (two scenes) Tom Hollander is predictably excellent as a former Riot Club member that is now working somewhere in the Government, effortlessly commanding the screen whenever he appears.
Though these are used effectively to drive the narrative, the extreme character differences between Alistair and Miles are perhaps relied on and emphasised a little too much. Though this may be narrative cinema, it has to go somewhere, but does often feel very contrived. It does almost feel that a condition of The Riot Club being funded as a film is that it doesn’t take as many risks as it (and I) would like it to as producers fear it not appealing to a big enough audience, and that is ultimately a real shame. Likewise developments in the final third sometimes feel quite lazily written, especially one big moment which does feel like Wade being unsure how to reach a conclusion. However there is still enough humour, biting satire and social commentary to make it a wildly entertaining and often darkly funny film that may well get a conversation started about Britain’s current class divide.
Despite having to resort to some very contrived narrative devices and ultimately not going far, deep and nasty as it could have with its examination of class divide in British society; The Riot Club is a very well acted drama that still manages to be hilarious and wildly entertaining.