“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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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