In her 2009 film An Education, Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig focused on the educated as they learned most of their life lessons outside of the classroom, in doing so casting the economic status of its main character in a completely new light. More importantly, Scherfig was interested in the mistakes we make at a young age when we can blame no one but ourselves for our situation. In her latest film, based on Laura Wade’s play Posh, Scherfig and Wade—adapting her own material—attempt to do the same in a much more aggressive and shocking environment. Yet it lacks the introspection that made the previous work so hard-hitting.
The eponymous Riot Club is a centuries-old private dinner club in which debauchery is raised to an art form. The group, which consists of 10 members, needs 2 more to continue the spectacle, and they enlist recruits: Miles (Max Irons), who’s closer to middle class than high society, and the legacy Alistair (Sam Clafin), whose brother was the club’s former president. Once the newbies are hazed, the 10 convene for their annual feast, where they plan to eat and drink to obscene levels and then destroy their hosts’ restaurant.
Since the collective have done this for years, the only locale that will host them is a small, family-run gastropub far away from school. As the night escalates with the usual festivities, the group’s true motivations become clear: a seething disgust for those below them and the class divide that, in their eyes, makes them worthy of this level of destruction—if only they pay for the damages they cause.
The Riot Club itself consists of some of Britain’s finest up-and-coming actors, including Douglas Booth (Noah), Matthew Beard (The Imitation Game) and Ben Schnetzer (Pride). That said, most of their characters have about as much depth as the Seven Dwarfs. Harry (Booth) is the ladies’ man, Guy (Beard) is the funny one, Hugo (Sam Reid) is the gay one, etc. In the end, these characters not so much actual people as they are symbolic of the high-end class warfare on which The Riot Club wants to focus.
Our eyes into the club, however, do provide us with the film’s most insight, as Miles looks on in horror at the events that transpire over the night. Irons’ building disgust with the group brings some sanity to the festivities and provides the crew with apparently the only working heart. The evening has plenty of infantile moments, such as the fury that arises when a prostitute (Natalie Dormer) refuses to service all 10 of the club’s members, but the party takes a dark turn when Miles’ girlfriend Lauren (an excellent Holliday Grainger) shows up unannounced. We see that while membership into The Riot Club can make your life an easy path, it can also ruin you.
Given how often fraternities pop up in the news lately for their negative practices, The Riot Club is easy to enrage the viewer, though it’s obvious the filmmakers frown on these practices from the start. Even then, when we get a flashback of the original Lord Riot, it’s clear that the occasion rests on the foolishness and frivolity of those who came before the current ensemble. Wade’s screenplay shows how the club can take past members to obscene heights, even above the law with the right contacts and a ton of money, but also lead to failures; we hear that Alistair’s brother now hopes to one day be a food truck owner. The status may be great, but the emotional damage simmers in the background, attacking only years later.
While The Riot Club lacks in depth and thematic intricacy, the second-act dinner itself is a compelling disaster, filled with frustrations and excellent young actors. The Riot Club is a tense, at times disturbing film that doesn’t quite nail the class discussion it aims to be. Still, it’s fascinating to watch these entitled brats get their comeuppance, even if their stark moment of self-realization only lasts until daddy bails them out once again.
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writer: Laura Wade, based on her play Posh
Starring: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer
Release Date: March 27, 2015
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.