Class Warfare Over Dinner In 'The Riot Club'
From the start, Lone Scherfig's The Riot Club promises a view of Oxford that's more given to exaggeration than realism. A prologue set at the university in the 18th century introduces us to Lord Ryot just before he's killed for cavorting with another man's wife. Ryot, we're told, was a man whose "appetites knew no earthly bounds," and in honor of his hedonism, his friends establish the Riot Club, a dinner club where, as a future member will put it two and a half centuries later, debauchery is "raised to an art."
Once we shift to the present day, it becomes equally evident that Scherfig—who previously explored the world of amoral wealthy Britons in An Education—is not striving for a sympathetic portrayal of Oxford, either. The emphasis, rather, is on the institution's snobbery and elitism, which emanates particularly and uncontrollably from the villainous Alistair (Sam Claflin). At one point, while being robbed at an ATM, he can't help but correct his muggers for redundantly ordering him to enter his "PIN number."
Alistair is the younger brother of a Riot Club president, which makes him a perfect recruit alongside his foil, Miles (Max Irons), an equally elite freshman who nevertheless sports a liberal heart: when his relatively unprivileged soon-to-be-girlfriend Lauren (Holliday Grainger) teasingly asks him, "Are you posh?" he replies with barely-hidden sincerity, "Just normal."
You could surmise the contrast between Miles and Alistair just by looking at them—Miles has enough boyish charm for an entire boy band, while Alistair only smiles when his sixth sense detects the suffering of the lower class. But Riot Club spends its opening twenty minutes accentuating their differences, going so far as to show them in an argument about the benefits or travesties of the post-war welfare state.
Subtlety and understatement, it's fair to say, are not quite The Riot Club's strong suit. But the movie leans so far in the other direction that it seems unfair to judge it by such criteria. The film's rushed, simplistic setup—Miles and Alistair go through a initiation filled with booze and maggots, at one point in the same glass, and are quickly welcomed into the Riot Club—ultimately leads to the film's centerpiece: a club dinner hosted in a small-town pub outside Oxford.
The Riot Club is based on the 2010 play Posh (the original playwright, Laura Wade, wrote the adaptation), which explains in part why one dinner dominates the bulk of the movie. But the constrained setting also reflects what kind of film The Riot Club is: one in which deep thoughts and carefully weighed conclusions are of less interest than seeing how much and how quickly humans can be corrupted.
At the dinner, decked out in matching old-fashioned tailcoats, the ten Riot Club members get exorbitantly drunk while Alistair goads and riles them, pushing everyone to increasingly vicious levels of class warfare. The scenario bears few returns intellectually—as a critique of entitlement and elitism, The Riot Club burns through its insights within a few minutes—but it's so quick to boil and holds so little back that it remains compelling dramatically.
Scherfig got her start in the Danish Dogme 95 movement from which Lars Von Trier also emerged. She long ago left behind that style's restrictive parameters, but here she displays a penchant for sensationalism that her former colleague would likely respect. Is it debauchery for debauchery's sake? In some senses, yes, in part because The Riot Club never reaches quite the same heights or achieves the same satisfying catharsis as some of Von Trier's work or, in another vein, Wolf of Wall Street. Nevertheless, Scherfig paces the central "Lord of the Flies" scenario expertly. It's all quite superficial, but never less than gripping, and is aided by an ending that at least doesn't compromise too much—the movie finishes with a smirk more than a smile. The experience is all intoxication and leaves little to ruminate on, but at least in the movies, such overindulgence carries no hangover.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.