François Truffaut’s line about the impossibility of making an anti-war film is doubly true for films about the depravity of the upper classes. As with war—thrilling on screen no matter how miserable a filmmaker tries to make it—it’s a question of form, not content. Think of American Psycho: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s film is arguably more contemptuous of Patrick Bateman than Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. But while Bateman’s brand-obsessed monologues about his wardrobe are punishing to the point of being unreadable on the page, in front of a camera the same material painlessly translates to consumer guides for GQ and Business Insider. The usual disclaimers apply—depiction isn’t necessarily endorsement, capitalism absorbs and appropriates all critique, wealthy people apparently can’t tell when they’re being loathsome—but it’s peculiarly difficult to make a film about the upper classes that won’t be read as aspirational, because the rich often spend their money on things that photograph well. In this sense, The Riot Club is exceptional. Neither director Lone Scherfig nor screenwriter Laura Wade are trying to have things both ways: They’ve made an unpleasant film about unpleasant people behaving unpleasantly. Unfortunately, nothing else about The Riot Club is as clean as its tone.
Start with the structure. Laura Wade adapted her 2010 play Posh for the screen, and as often happens, the attempt to open up the story has fatally unbalanced it. Both play and film are about a fictional version of Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club, where future Prime Ministers learn valuable lessons about destroying the property of the lower classes. But while the play reportedly focuses on just one of the club’s debauched meals, the film stretches from Freshers’ week to Christmas, which spreads things far too thin. After a brief and entirely unnecessary introduction explaining the club’s 18th-century origins, Wade and Scherfig track two students, Miles Richards (Max Irons) and Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin) as they’re inducted into the 10-member club. Miles has the obligatory relationship with someone beneath him (“Girls for now, girls for later,” club member Sam Reid admonishes), but there’s no chemistry at all between Irons and Holliday Grainger, cast in the thankless role of “girl for now.” Claflin has even less to do, although a scene in which he can’t resist explaining to a mugger that “PIN number” is redundant is one of the pleasures of the otherwise cluttered first act.
Things don’t get started until the club dinner, a roiling nightmare of dread and chaos. Scherfig, whose 2009 film An Education showed a similar fascination with class, begins with slow-motion shots of the sad little preparations at the rural pub where the club has rented a private dining room, lingering over the shades on a cheap chandelier and a badly lit cupboard. It’s a nice touch, using the sort of cinematic treatment Scherfig pointedly doesn’t give to the Aston Martin or other trappings of wealth that show up earlier. (Less nice is the fact that the cupboard literally contains china plates and ceramic bulls; this is not a subtle film.) Gordon Brown and Jessica Brown Findlay do a fine job as the hapless pub owner and his daughter, and things go off the rails in a way that inspires more disgust than catharsis. To Wade and Scherfig’s credit, it’s impossible to imagine anyone watching this part of the film and thinking, “Yes, I’ll have some of that, please.”
But it’s just as impossible to imagine anyone watching the post-party aftermath and sympathizing with Miles—and regrettably, that’s what the film seems to want us to do. There’s a clean line between Alistair’s drunken exclamation that he is “sick to fucking death of poor people” and his condemnation of the Beveridge Report in one of his tutorials: He’s at Oxford to learn how to hide his viciousness behind policy. The line between the Miles who is fascinated with the Riot Club and the Miles who learns a valuable lesson about shared humanity is a lot less obvious. The Riot Club was clearly made by people who understand that a film that revels in conspicuous consumption doesn’t magically become anti-greed by hastily grafting on a moral. But instead, they’ve made a polemic that suddenly, unconvincingly insists it’s a character study. “Time will tell if it was one bad apple spoiling the rest,” says a dour administrator near the end of the film. It’s all well and good to call for the guillotine—but let’s not pretend it was designed to sort apples.