If you’re reading this review on this website, you’re probably already aware of the publicity surrounding The Riot Club, and its potential for pernicious influence on Oxford’s PR persona. You’re probably also expecting a scathing attack on how it depicts the University as a cesspit of classist tension and Cassanovian debauchery. Sadly this isn’t the case. If I had left the film feeling anguished over its attitude towards Oxford, it would have had to have been far more engaging and convincing. As it is, Lone Scherfig’s film is a lukewarm attempt at too many different things.
The Riot Club follows Miles, a new student at Oxford, who becomes involved in the eponymous society, itself a not-at-all veiled parody of the Bullingdon. The film follows his love life, his initiation into the club, and the eventual shock which occurs when privileged elitism meets real life. The real focus of the film, though, are the members of the club; in the same way that you spot animals at a zoo, a moviegoer is invited to gawk at their uniqueness, their strangeness, and how far divorced they are from normal life.
It’s undeniable that elements of the film are enjoyable. A scene early on involving an Aston Martin and vomit set the tone well, and during the club’s annual dinner, very much the film’s centre piece, a drinking game based on Latin was well executed and fun. Two performances also really stand out; Tom Hollander as the deliciously sinister ex-club member with an overwhelming sense of self-worth, and Sam Claflin’s Alistair Ryle, who is the epitome of cockiness, twattishness and passive-aggressive jealousy that all the other club members should have been.
The problems for the film can be traced back to its status as an adaptation of a play. As a piece of theatre, originally called Posh, it’s easy to imagine the film working well in a perverted History Boys sort of way, but on the big screen, it becomes glaringly obvious from an early point that not nearly enough was done to turn the play into something extensive enough for a film. If I could level one main point of criticism at The Riot Club, it would be that it feels deeply uncinematic. There’s nothing at work to suggest this wouldn’t have worked better as an adaptation for TV, or even as a live broadcast of a theatre production.
A perfect example is the set-piece dinner sequence. On stage, I can see it being an extravagant scene that used the design of the stage perfectly. Unfortunately, on film it comes across as a distinctly underwhelming apogee for what is meant to be a hotbed of iniquity and the climax of the plot. Consequently, it quickly becomes tiring, repetitive and far, far too long. Even the perspective that the audience views the action of the film is evocative of a theatre production, the camera staying perpetually at the middle distance of imaginary stalls instead of utilising the full breadth of depth that film can.
A concurrent problem that seems to be a result of the source material, rather than the adaptation, is that the film never decides what it wants to be. It begins as a satire of classism at a top university, before adding a nebulous love story, then morphing into an ensemble drama-comedy and culminating as a tragedy. Yet none of these strands are done effectively. The satire is simplistic and juvenile, reducing the depiction of classism to a battle between accents north and south of the M25. The love story is so superfluous that the film eventually abandons interest in it, just like I did, and relegates it to a purgatorial no man’s land of irresolution. Worst is the ensemble aspect, which is let down by characterisation of the Riot Club members that is so indistinct that they far too quickly become a blob of chiselled jaw lines and tail coats. Their dialogue is also nowhere near as snappy or quippy as it should be, consigning any chance of consistent humour or engagement to the imagination.
Moreover, the eventual tragedy of the story is done with such cack-handed obviousness that anyone who didn’t see it coming would have to have entered the screening 15 minutes before the end, and have blocked their ears from the almost laughably menacing soundtrack that pre-empts the denouement.
If it had had the courage in its convictions to carry through just one of these strands effectively, the film would have worked. The satire on classism seems the easiest, given how the caricatures of pompous, extravagantly wealthy and breathtakingly supercilious Hooray Henrys essentially write themselves (and are extremely easy targets for villainisation). Yet, rather than creating characters that are hateful in anything close to a meaningful way, instead they are childishly condensed into two-dimensional, violent goons as if to effusively underline that we are meant to hate them.
An hour and forty-five minutes is a long time to spend in the company of people who try your patience from the word go. It would have been completely excusable if the result had been much wittier, or more focussed or even more caricatured. Instead, The Riot Club presents a group of characters that aren’t evil enough, distinct enough, or funny enough, and who end up being grating companions, accompanying the audience on an aimless and dull journey to nowhere.