During this recent period of political fervour, the subject of British elitism has been thrust upon our national consciousness, and this issue of a government increasingly out of touch finds itself coming to its cinematic fruition in Lone Sherfig’s The Riot Club. After the shamble that was her adaptation of One Day, which only in my most generous of states could I extend the courtesy of calling misguided, the director finds herself back to her old form, bringing a competent adaption of the acclaimed play “POSH” to our screens, boasting both promising performances and a finely observed piece of social drama. In its narrative scope, the film is very much designed as a faithful translation of its source material, but its strength lies not in its cinematic competency, but in its ability to make us loathe with an animosity beyond our previous human comprehension, the very existence of the group of gentleman before us.
It is a film of two halves, the first being a tale of public school boy Miles (Max Irons) entering his first year at Oxford. Our protagonist soon falls for Lauren (Holiday Grainger), a mere state schoolgirl, and in no time they soon partake in the typical rom-com shenanigans, from agreeing not to sleep with one another to then almost immediately making love on their tutor’s floor, after-hours of course but still quite a tricky operation. Only when Miles is reunited with an old school chum, who recommends his initiation into the prestigious “Riot Club” does the film gradually shift from a light critique of public school tomfoolery to an almost dystopian insight into the worst extremities of class snobbery.
The film that immediately came to mind upon watching these public school boys delve into increasingly repugnant acts of human depravity was Lindsay Anderson’s “If…”which sees a group students commit a massacre at the film’s climax in revolt against the establishment. Whereas those boys rebelled, the members of the Riot Club revel in the established order, feeling absolute contempt for all those who question it. The film makes little effort to disguise the historical basis of its fictional society, with most of the action taking place in the “Bull End Pub”, alluding to the notorious Bullingdon Club. The abhorrence the film instils in its audience is the consequence of the well-crafted characters, which do not simply resemble caricatures but effectively capture both the idiosyncrasies and jargon of that way of life, oozing the imperiousness and self-righteousness of that minute echelon of society. The film is not simply an affront to public schools, it is an attack to those who refuse to acknowledge the norms of society, but instead believe their wealth and education makes them exempt from decent human generosity.
The juxtaposition between the utmost elite and the rest of civilization is conveyed wonderfully in a transitory sequence, which sees the downtrodden Scottish landlord Gordon Brown part from the abusive and impertinent treatment of the Riot Club to tend for a table downstairs, in which a grandmother celebrates her birthday with family. The disjunction between the appalling antics of the club and a scene of human kindness, visually captured the message of the film, in which these elite groups of individuals are so far removed from the rest of society they cannot possibly understand how the others live.
The reality that three leading figures of British politics were in fact members of the basis of the Riot Club at university alarms me, but not as much as the embarrassing reality that our very institution should have a club that celebrates these elitist ideals in a blend of both ostentatious displays of wealth and a parallel sense of self-entitlement. If cinema serves to inspire a human response, then nothing now in cinemas will get your blood boiling and your faith in humanity quavering more than the Riot Club.