Consuming the pop culture output of a country helps to develop an understanding of that country. Case in point: the United Kingdom. Despite my very English background (three quarters of my grandparents and my father were born there), I’ve never visited old Britannia, yet my familiarity with British television and movies has engendered a sense of understanding of how the nation operates. Specifically, almost every piece of British pop culture is suffused with class anxieties: working class comedies like Fawlty Towers or Keeping Up Appearances centre on characters desperate to shuffle up the ranks of society, while upper class dramas like Downton Abbey regularly address class concerns.
It’s not class isn’t present in, well, any socially-engaged art, but that it feels so much prominent in British productions when compared to other countries. Characters open obsess about how they are perceived, whether or not their behaviour is acceptable or ‘classy.’ Modern comedies like Mrs Brown’s Boys or Little Britain make no bones about mocking the habits of the ‘lower class.’ None of this is especially surprising, given the nation’s Imperialist history of monarchy and aristocracy, but it’s impossible to consume even a small percentage of British pop culture without becoming aware of how it seems to dominate the cultural conversation.
The Riot Club, then, fails because it does little more than take this discourse, which exists in both the subtext and surface level of most British films and television, and allows it to become the sole focus. The film, directed by Lone Scherfig, is adapted from Laura Wade’s play Posh by Wade herself. The unsubtlety of the play’s title gives some indication of the unsubtlety of this film, which centres on a fictional club – called, yes, “the Riot Club” – at the prestigious Oxford University. A riff on the real-life Bullingdon Club – whose ex-members hold prominent positions at the upper echelons of British politics – the Riot Club consists of ten extremely affluent, extremely amoral young men.
In of itself, this is a promising premise, but it’s wasted on a storyline constructed out of archetypes to draw obvious conclusions. Two freshmen – the sneering, superior Alistair (Sam Clafin) and the more down-to-earth Miles (Max Irons) – are conscripted into the club after the graduation of two senior members, and the first act of the film plods both through overwritten conversations where characters reveal their thinly-concealed arrogance and Miles’ courtship of the ‘common’ Lauren (Holliday Grainger). The latter storyline is more tolerable, largely thanks to the actors’ chemistry, though it largely serves to set up the second act descent into debauchery.
This descent occurs around a dinner table at a quaint old pub (owned by the ironically named Gordon Brown – that’s the name of the actor, not the character – and his daughter, Jessica Brown Findlay). The boys gather to consume copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine and a ‘ten birds roast’, but soon the night takes a dark turn – think vandalism, prostitutes, violence – motivated by rants about “hating the poor.” Again, this could have worked quite well, but there’s no depth or insight here, merely hateful posh kids taking what they can out of a deeply-learned sense of superiority.
The Riot Club operates as a broad fable – I’m reluctant to call it a satire because its events are so plausible – with little to say beyond “rich people think themselves superior to poor people” and “rich people succeed due to their social connections.” If it were entertaining – say, wildly exaggerated or played as a broad comedy – this would be okay, but it’s a drag of a film with nothing to say about British culture that one couldn’t have surmised from a season of Fawlty Towers.
Any kind of deeper investigation into the Riot Club’s motivations are given lip-service. They’re sexist, so they treat Miles’ girlfriend as a whore, offering her thousands of pounds to fellate the entire club, one at a time. They’re racist, so we get a ten second discussion about one of the members not being worthy for club president because he’s Greek. Like any British boys’ club, there’s a hefty dose of latent homosexuality, so we get a blunt conversation about ‘rent boys.’ It’s all so brash and obvious.
For me, though, the film’s biggest failings is not its lack of subtlety but rather that it can’t even maintain a moral compass. Granted, it successfully avoids glorifying the club’s behaviour – no matter how many expensive cars they drive in and how much expensive alcohol they consume, joining the club remains an entirely uninviting proposition – but its sympathies ultimately lie with the apparently moral Miles. We are expected to commiserate with him in the fallout of the fateful dinner, despite his refusal to step in or take a stand beyond lurking in the background with a pained expression. A better film would have indicted Miles for this – because the true villains of the upper class aren’t simply those who indulge in despicable behaviour, but those who look the other way to preserve their own skins.
My recommendation? Go watch Fawlty Towers instead.