Essays · Movies

Total Carnage: The Timely Anger of The Riot Club

Overlooked upon its initial release, Lone Scherfig’s satire of privilege acquires newfound resonance in light of current events.
The Riot Club
By  · Published on November 1st, 2018

In 2013, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street ignited a furor that raged throughout awards season. Was the three-hour Jordan Belfort biopic a vicious indictment of the moral bankruptcy of America’s financial system? Or was it a self-indulgent celebration of the vices it claimed to be condemning? The conversation took on the tenor of a political debate: participants were expected to not only form an opinion but choose a side. Jordan Belfort himself might have approved of its grandiose proportions.

A year later, The Riot Club debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. Adapted by Laura Wade from her play Posh and directed by Lone Scherfig, the film follows the hedonistic exploits of an exclusive all-male dining society at Oxford University. It landed with minimal fanfare, receiving a limited stateside release in March 2015 and grossing a paltry $2 million worldwide. Critics dismissed it as predictable, manipulative, and, in the case of the New York Post’s Kyle Smith, “embarrassingly vulgar”, questioning the need for yet another story about the carelessness of rich people.    

You needn’t possess a degree from Oxford or any university to deduce why one film caught fire and the other didn’t. In addition to coming first, The Wolf of Wall Street had an A-list pedigree and record-setting levels of profanity and a trailer set to “Black Skinhead” by Kanye West, its brazen disregard for decorum sold as transgression; like a limousine in a seedy motel lot, it demanded attention. Removed from the brouhaha of 2013, however, Scherfig’s effort has emerged, at least in my mind, as the bolder, more incisive work.

On September 27, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sat in front of a Senate committee – and a national television audience – to refute Christine Blasey Ford’s assertion that he sexually assaulted her at a high school party in the ‘80s. During the hearing, as well as the weeks of media coverage that preceded it, I thought about The Riot Club a lot. It’s not like real-life circumstances suddenly made the movie relevant. Rather, they crystallized what made the movie relevant all along, lending immediacy to its somewhat esoteric critique of British higher education. Although cinema history is littered with stories of careless rich people, from Citizen Kane to The Wolf of Wall Street, few depict with such brutal intricacy the way privilege cultivates and shores up toxic masculinity.

Like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Riot Club toes the line between depiction and glorification. A prologue shows Henry Sebastian Aldershot (Harry Lloyd), a duke affectionately known as “Lord Ryot” and the inspiration for the titular group, being fatally shot for sleeping with another man’s wife. Scherfig plays up the absurdity of the sequence, bathing it in harsh lighting and an operatic, quasi-classical score. Ryot is positioned as a figure of both derision and admiration; as his eulogy boasts, he “dazzled us with debauchery.” For the next 100 minutes, the present-day club attempts to carry on his legacy by reveling in drinking, drugs, sex, and violence.

Where the films diverge is in their perspectives. Using Belfort’s own memoir as source material, Scorsese and Wolf screenwriter Terence Winter let viewers in on the joke, filtering events through fourth wall-breaking commentary that treats us as eager disciples. Only with artful edits – a jarring wide shot, a fleeting glimpse of a suffering woman’s face – do they disrupt Jordan’s solipsistic narrative. By contrast, after the fantasy-tinged prologue, Scherfig and Wade keep their subjects at a distance, denying viewers the pleasure of the vicarious experience. We are forever on the other side of the glass.

In charting the staging, progression, and fallout of the Riot Club’s decadent annual dinner, the movie juggles multiple points of view, flitting between the club’s inner circle and various people in its orbit. Although we access the story through freshman inductees Miles Richards (Max Irons) and Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin), it mainly falls on characters outside the circle to fulfill the role of audience surrogates, their expressions of shock and indignation presumably echoing ours.

Taken at face value, this tactic might seem like a cop-out, allowing viewers and the filmmakers to sidestep the messy ethical calculations that come with delving into the interiority of unpleasant or unscrupulous individuals. On the contrary, by including a range of perspectives, Scherfig and Wade complicate the narrative. Privilege may insulate people from the world, but it doesn’t separate them. A bubble isn’t a vacuum. Through the club’s interactions with outsiders, we get a sense of its true nature, exposing a discrepancy between the way it presents itself and the way others perceive it.

Steeped in aristocratic tradition, the Riot Club takes pride in the trappings of prestige. Members wear tailored suits to meetings and engage in elaborate rituals, such as an initiation that combines excessive drinking with trivia. They’re fond of opening conversations by asking strangers where they went to school. (Eton is ace, Harrow acceptable, Bristol downright embarrassing.) Yet, their riches and pretenses ultimately can’t conceal the boorishness of their conduct. At the rural pub where the dinner is held (“We’re banned from anywhere closer”), they are an inconvenience. The chefs struggle to assemble their order, and customers complain about the noise. When they gripe that the food fails to meet their standards, Rachel (Jessica Brown Findlay), their waitress, retorts, “What are you doing in Brigsby, then?”

No one, in other words, takes them very seriously, except Chris (Gordon Brown), the pub owner and Rachel’s father. Even Charlie (Natalie Dormer), an escort hired by Harry (Douglas Booth) to perform under-the-table oral sex, rejects them for not being “classy.” As the night plods on and the revelers get drunker, higher, and rowdier, the camera grows restless, its unsteady movements creating a feeling of barely-contained chaos. The image of debonair gentlemen posed in a tableau that featured prominently in the film’s marketing campaign is replaced by the sight of boys with disheveled hair sputtering impotently.

Eventually, after they bring in Charlie, drive away customers, and destroy his restaurant, Chris loses his patience with the club, realizing that they’re just “spoiled little brats.” His assessment is accurate, yet incomplete. While it spares little sympathy for its protagonists, The Riot Club still seeks to understand them. Lauren (Holliday Grainger) provides the key. Far from an obligatory love interest, she drives the plot, unwittingly instigating the rivalry between Miles and Alistair that forms the movie’s backbone.

The truth is that, beneath their sophisticated veneer, these people are basic, motivated by shallow desires and primal impulses. Alistair’s aversion to Miles stems not from a political disagreement, as he tells a fellow club member, but from jealousy. See, during one breakfast, he made a clumsy effort at socializing with Lauren and it backfired, eliciting only a vaguely amused “There weren’t any girls at your school, were there?” Miles, on the other hand, won her over with apparent ease. Of course, Lauren was oblivious to this subliminal exchange; to her, it’s just a casual conversation. But she’s incidental to it anyway. The men aren’t trying to court her; they’re trying to court each other.

Writing about Kavanaugh, The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino observed that sexual assault reduces women to “a chess piece, one of a long procession of objects in the lifelong game that men play with other men.” That more or less sums up the dynamic of the Riot Club. Nearly everything its members do is designed with the other members in mind: Alistair lures Lauren to the dinner to ruffle Miles; Miles jokes about his relationship with Lauren to ingratiate himself with the group; Harry hires Charlie to impress his peers; when that fails, he assaults Lauren to redeem himself. Entire conflicts play out through glances, captured in furtive shots by DP Sebastian Blenkov and editor Jake Roberts. Lauren’s assault is accompanied by the unmistakable sound of laughter.

Based on The Riot Club, Tolentino’s observation could also sum up the dynamic of politics. For their history class, Miles and Alistair are assigned to argue the merits of the welfare state through weekly essays. “Your job,” the professor explains, “is to provoke [your partner], challenge him to be more rigorous.” Ostensibly, the assignment is meant to teach critical thinking and rhetorical skills, but its practical purpose is to initiate the students into the culture of politics. Government, it suggests, is a grand-scale competition, negotiated through power moves disguised as solidarity.

The club proves laughably fragile, built on fault lines as deep as its roots. Facing the prospect of prison and ruined careers, the boys turn against each other without hesitation, dredging up buried resentments. (An attempt to frame the scapegoat as a hero rings hollow; none of the members volunteers himself.) Yet, it survives. Despite its righteous tone, The Riot Club is clear-eyed about the ability of privileged men to escape consequences, whether due to the tolerance of bystanders like Chris and Rachel or the active complicity of a support network. After all, it draws inspiration from the real-life Bullingdon Club, whose former members include David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

Following his arrest and expulsion from Oxford, Alistair meets with Jeremy (Tom Hollander), a Riot Club alum and conservative MP. In addition to recommending a lawyer, Jeremy offers a job in his office, claiming that he sees a bright future for the younger man. So, far from ruining his career, Alistair’s misdeeds make his career. At the end of the film, Alistair walks down the street, donning a pair of black gloves. His stern countenance contorts into a smirk. The moment is laced with irony, a British flag waving in the background and a jaunty tune playing overhead. But its message nonetheless chills to the bone: the person who made you miserable in school potentially now occupies a position of power. He might even be running the country.

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Writer based in northern Virginia who wishes every movie were a little more like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Bylines include The Week, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Culturess.