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.

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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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