The Riot Club

The privilege of wealth and academic elitism are put under a none-too-subtle microscope in The Riot Club, wherein a secret club of young toffs at Oxford University pursue a hedonistic legacy to disgusting excess. The toxic attitudes of the upper class towards the rest of us get an exasperating airing in an adaptation of the stage play Posh, but the takeaway from this overstated class war skirmish is more likely to irritate than enlighten.

The film opens with a historical flashback to a womanizing ‘Lord Riot’ being murdered by a jilted husband, followed by his equally debauched friends’ decree to honour his passing by founding a club dedicated to allowing entitled rich misfits to do whatever sordid thing they like. Cut to modern day and this Riot Club still endures as a secret society amongst Oxford University’s undergrads.

This year’s new initiates to the gang of dandies are upper-middle-class Miles (Max Irons), and snooty Alistair (Sam Claflin), the younger brother of a past Riot Club president. Miles quickly establishes his down-to-earth nature by shacking up with less-privileged classmate Lauren, while Alistair’s quietly seething hatred for anyone outside the purebred ranks promptly figures him as chief villain.

Hazing rituals of the rich and foppish dominate the first act, as expensive booze, flash cars, and gigantic family manors form the window-dressing of otherwise-typical college flick shenanigans. Things take a darker turn as the club settles in for a rowdy annual get-together in a rural pub – the spoiled brat brigade proceed to eat, drink, and be merciless, to the peril of the beleaguered family bar staff and everyday patrons.

Slowly plodding from boisterous self-entitlement to outright drunken hostility, the dinner takes on a Lord of the Flies vibe as the pissed and drugged-up little narcissists let their uninhibited, violent prejudices off the leash. Women, foreigners, and the working class enter at their peril as the extended dining scene becomes an exaggerated, upsetting example of class privilege laid bare.

Director Lone Scherfig has covered similar territory in much more thoughtful style with 2009’s An Education, but despite the clumsier flavour of satire, The Riot Club still bristles with solid dramatic flair. Performances from the young Brits are all on key. Though most of the Riot Club members tend to wash together in one indistinguishable bad attitude, leads Irons and Claflin prove mutually effective foils.

The Riot Club has salient points to make about the kinds of exclusive power circle jerks lightly fictionalised here, but well known to exist in various forms across the globe. Unfortunately those points have been made far more incisively in other, similar works, including from the director herself. The overall unpleasantness of it all is more than enough to piss off us peasants, but it’s not quite enough to spark a full-fledged riot.

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