CAST: Max Irons, Sam Claflin, Douglas Booth, Holliday Grainger, Freddie Fox, Natalie Dormer, Jessica Brown Findlay, Sam Reid, Ben Schnetzer, Tom Hollander, Anastasia Hille, Olly Alexander, Gordon Brown
RUNNING TIME: 107 mins
BASICALLY…: A group of elitist young men at Oxford University spend the night together at a pub, which soon turns to debauchery and mayhem…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Of all the adaptations of plays in recent months, including August: Osage County and Jersey Boys, director Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club – adapted from the play Posh by Laura Wade, who also provides the screenplay – actually friggin’ EXPANDS on the screen rather than feels like a National Theatre Live production. Characters are given more development and even story arcs to play with, certain themes are drawn out and experimented on, and it feels infinitely more whole than it would have if it had stuck word-for-word what Wade had originally written for the stage. The boisterous and crackling spirit remains in her dialogue and characters, but perhaps it lacks the bite to be a wholly convincing political statement.
Don’t be mistaken, there are definitely things to talk about regarding the themes and content of this particular film; hell, we wouldn’t be surprised to see film students at university writing whole essays about its depiction of class and other pointers. But in presenting one side of the argument to such an extreme level, it can feel like a one-sided attack of the elitist system more than a rounded debate of ethics and morals. Its central characters are all pompous, entitled, spoilt and extremely arrogant young members of the titular prestigious club which dates back to Edwardian times (as seen in a pre-titles sequences like something out of a lost Blackadder episode), and though some are more fleshed out than others they are mostly defined by their class and attitudes to anyone else around them. One wonders if Wade has political ties to the Labour movement – not that we’re against it at all, everyone’s entitled to their own political opinion – which may explain a somewhat biased judgement to the elite as depicted in this film.
After gaining more of an international audience with crowd-pleasing films like An Education and One Day, Danish director Scherfig makes what might be her funniest film since her 2002 native comedy Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself. As with that film, the humour becomes darker with every passing second to a point where it can become so pitch black you’ll need a flashlight to see where it’s going. The first half of the film surprisingly plays like a straightforward college comedy with many of the usual tropes: the romance between two aspiring students, as shared by Max Irons’ Miles and Holliday Grainger’s “posh boy” and “commoner” respectively; the initiation trials complete with gross-out gags involving semen and maggots (in separate instances, thank God); and the dorm rooms of certain characters being sabotaged and destroyed to a point where it’s just cruel and disheartening. The main difference is that it’s all done with a bunch of pompous and savage young buffoons who in any other college movie would be the villains (though, in a way, they still are). Still, Scherfig handles these scenes very well and even makes old jokes funny again with her straightforward style and shared mockery of the lifestyle of the 1%.
It’s when the film reaches the point where most of its source material takes place, in a lowly pub not so near Oxford University, that it becomes both more restrained and more off the chain. The sudden introduction of landlord Chris (Gordon “no, not that one” Brown) and his daughter Rachel (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) as prominent characters, as well as some recognisably stagey dialogue, are clear signs that the film has stopped being a film and has instead turned into a more straight adaptation of Wade’s play. From here, we are forced to watch these unlikable main characters get drunker and – pun intended – more riotous as the evening goes on, from playing absurd Latin drinking games to offending a hired escort (Natalie Dormer in a much smaller role than we’d like – seriously, can someone please give this woman a leading role in a film? Game of Thrones has proved to wider audiences that she has great on-screen charisma, so what’s stopping you Hollywood? Oh, well, back to the review…) to humiliating Grainger’s character in an admittedly contrived scenario to eventually trashing everything in plain sight all in the supposed name of fun and entertainment. Basically, we’re stuck watching the elitist version of Project X.
The uneven combination of Scherfig’s direction and Wade’s script makes this extended sequence look unbalanced in contrast to its more conventional first half, though it’s probably better than the alternative which would have been to adapt the play as it was originally written (there is apparently a scene in the play where the ghost of the founding club member appears before the boys and convinces them to destroy everything. Yyyyyyyyyyyeaaaaaaaaah….).
Even still, The Riot Club should be commended for actually attempting to feel more like a film rather than a filmed production of the play, which is what a good adaptation should do. The problem is, the material lacks any real voice against the privileged society it wishes to mock and ends up feeling like just that: a schoolyard mockery. It gets the satirical nature down to a tee, but ultimately for a film called The Riot Club there’s not a lot to really riot about regarding its targets.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Riot Club excels as a stage-to-film adaptation, thanks to Laura Wade’s witty screenplay expanding its characters and themes, but despite strong direction from Lone Scherfig and compelling performances from its young cast it lacks a serious punch when it comes to representing the elitist society it depicts.