By Emma Burles (originally published in Oh My Daze, October 2014 issue)
Danish director of the critically acclaimed An Education (2009, UK), collaborates with rising playwright Laura Wade, on a film based on Wade’s award winning 2010 play Posh. Although Wade claims the play and screen-play are entirely fictitious, the ‘Riot Club’ closely resembles the notorious Oxford Bullingdon Club, with their formal dinners; expensive penguin suits; misogynistic attitudes; and reputation for wrecking restaurants.
The film begins in the 17th Century at the supposed founding of the Riot Club, named after Lord Ryot (a clerical error results in Riot becoming the name of the club instead, a more fitting name considering the club’s penchant for debauchery). Lord Ryot, just murdered for cuckolding a husband, had a notorious reputation for hedonism, and the new society seeks to emulate his excess. Other rules dictate that the club take on only male members, must all be privately educated at the country’s best schools and should consist of 10 members each year.
We travel forward to 21st Century Oxford during Fresher’s Week, where the modern-day Riot Club are in a predicament. They currently have only 8 members, and it would bring great shame upon them to be “the only year who couldn’t get 10”. Enter the two most likely candidates; Miles Richards (Max Irons), Westminster educated with left wing views and a Northern state school educated girlfriend; and the shy and socially awkward Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin), a right wing supporter and brother of a past ‘legendary’ president of the Riot Club.
As there apparently don’t appear to be any other prospective members, the pair are both accepted, and initiated into the Club, by way of downing a glass of wine filled with phlegm, cigarette butts and maggots; imbibing a suspicious yellow liquid from a condom before sprinting around campus and answering general knowledge questions; and having their rooms completely trashed, Ryle reinventing himself as a swaggering hedonist in the process.
Much of the rest of the film centres around one of their formal dinners, where as is to be expected they ingest copious amounts of booze, food and drugs; mock and insult everyone they feel to be beneath them: the working class, the Scottish, anyone without a private school education, prostitutes, and women; and eventually trash the place. They defend their traditions and opinions throughout the dinner, claiming that the lower classes are lazy and resentful, with the almost amoral Ryle in particular firing everyone up with his defense of right-wing politics. The pace is at times slow and stilted – with a lot of unnecessary lingering on exchanges between the pub-owner and his staff. But when it gets going it’s a great piece of filmmaking – the disgusting excess and outrageous misogynistic and classist attitudes brilliantly depicted, and the members’ sheer arrogance and sense of entitlement displayed nauseatingly. Throughout the dinner they try and fail to ‘buy’ the services of those they feel to be beneath them, further fuelling their resentment and leading to a barbaric climax of a scene, with even the members left stunned by their actions.
One thing distinctly lacking in the film was meaty political debate. Aside from a couple of very brief exchanges at the beginning of the film, and a heated one-sided riling up of the members during the dinner (which seemed rather to serve as a plot device as it incensed the characters to the point that they committed certain atrocities later in the film), there were no substantial political discussions and parties were implied rather than explicitly named. Considering that the film is a clear satire of the club that once famously included three of the most prominent conservative politicians serving in our country at the present time, and is supposedly a depiction of potential future political leaders’ informative university years, this lack of discussion and the choice not to directly name political parties is questionable. Instead the filmmakers seem to focus on making the film more entertaining, drawing attention to the handsome selection of leading men, the raucous excesses of the club’s members, and the quaint depictions of Oxford university life.
Whatever the reason for this choice, the film is highly watchable, providing a charged and entertaining insight into the lives of some of the most privileged and well-educated in our country, featuring a fine range of young British thesps (who possess a collective filmography of some of the most popular recent teen-films). Although not as brave politically as it could have been and perhaps over-glamourizing the revelry of these men, it’s timing is very pertinent, with the next general elections, at which ex-Bullingdon member and leader of the conservative party, David Cameron will have to retain his position, coming up in less than a year.