“The Riot Club” is based on Laura Wade’s Bullingdon Club-inspired Royal Court play “Posh”.
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If only the lads of The Riot Club were a little less revolting

Lone Scherfig’s film adaptation of the 2010 play Posh feels unbalanced: we want to see a bit of naughty fun before the nastiness kicks in.

The Riot Club (15)
dir: Lone Scherfig

In Buñuel’s sticky 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, a group of wealthy dinner-party guests are holed up for days on end in the home of their host. The plush apartment becomes increasingly degraded, with livestock even straying in at one point, but for reasons the diners cannot fathom, no one can bring themselves to leave.

In The Riot Club, we are trapped once again at dinner with the overprivileged, only this time it isn’t that they can’t leave but that they won’t. These are ten Oxford undergraduates convening their hedonistic society in the dining room of a village pub. It’s another dinner party that will end in destruction and derangement. Buñuel’s meaning was tantalisingly opaque but The Riot Club couldn’t be any clearer if the pub was called the Dog and United Kingdom. For an appetiser, the picture serves up metaphor. It is metaphor also for main course. As for dessert – more metaphor, anyone?

The film is adapted by Laura Wade from her play Posh, which was a hit at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2010. In both cases, any similarities to Oxford dining societies attended by members of the current cabinet are intentional. In the absence of testimony from actual members of the Bullingdon Club, Wade has had to imagine what must have gone on. Her screenplay falls between two stools, neither fictional enough to float free of its biographical moorings, nor able to exploit the gossipy buzz that would arise from knowing that a character is based on David Cameron or Boris Johnson, or that the snivelling wretch in the corner whom nobody likes is George Osborne.

It is freshers’ week and Miles (Max Irons) is singled out as Riot Club material by some of the old guard, including the president, James (Freddie Fox), who looks like an albino cherub, and the fencing champ Harry (Douglas Booth), with his oil-paint eyes and cheekbones visible from space.

We know that Miles is a decent sort, because he converses freely with Lauren (Holliday Grainger), who is from the north and is therefore an authentic and principled person. She upbraids a fellow student for recounting a joke in which the punchline involves someone getting a place at Bristol. And her idea of post-coital conversation is to compare her working-class vocabulary with Miles’s upper-class one: she dabs her lips with a “serviette” after “dessert”, whereas he would reach for a “napkin” after “pudding”. It is no reflection on Grainger to say that even the most temperate viewers may find themselves picturing Lauren drowning in a sea of foie gras.

Language is certainly important in the film. One toff receives a harsher beating from a cashpoint mugger after pointing out the flaw in the phrase “PIN number”. But the problem of characters functioning as symbols, rather than as people, extends beyond Lauren. Had greater effort been made to coax out likeable qualities from the posh boys, there would have been so much more at stake once their behaviour went from bad to brutal. (I would have settled for them being distinguishable from one another. It’s hard not to nod sympathetically when a witness says: “I couldn’t tell them apart.”)

The audience might even have been made to feel complicit if we had some emotional investment in these people who are shown doing unspeakable things. The Riot Club can’t countenance that ambiguity. The nearest it comes is in the character of the pub landlord, played by Gordon Brown (oh, if only). His attitude to the rich is subtly obsequious in a way that helps facilitate their appalling behaviour. So eager is he to curry favour with them that he overlooks their insults and is even willing to be paid off in the early stages of their debauchery.

A more strident film might have made the case that he is the real villain of the piece – that he stands for the rest of society, the rest of us, willing to brook endless inconvenience and discomfort so that the wealthy can enjoy their liberty. When he turns the sign on the pub door to “Closed” after his guests have left for the evening, the thought that he may be calling time on Britain as a whole is enough to distract you temporarily from realising that it’s news­agents and bakeries that tend to have those sorts of signs, not pubs.

The Riot Club is the third British adaptation by the Danish director Lone Scherfig, following An Education (from Lynn Barber’s memoir) and One Day (based on David Nicholls’s novel). It shows her to be in possession of her usual mix of a sympathetic eye and an uncertain sensibility. She might have looked for pointers in Patrice Leconte’s 1996 film Ridicule, which told a similar story set in the court of Versailles but had the good manners to indulge in some naughty fun before the nastiness kicked in.

The Riot Club is caught uneasily between the humane and the Hogarthian, too middlebrow to throw in its lot with either camp. Scherfig gives us the worst of both worlds: there is none of the infectious glee of bad behaviour but plenty of hand-wringing in the morning after. Her film is all hangover. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear