The Riot Club

My initial feeling about this film wasn’t positive, and in a certain way that didn’t surprise me. After all, if you go to see a film which you know is about horrible people, then you shouldn’t be too surprised if you end up seeing a horrible film. On the other hand, a film about Nazis, computer virus makers or even people who cough during classical concerts can be an excellent film if it’s well made, well acted and has something interesting to say about its subject. Unfortunately this film didn’t quite fall into that category…

(details below)

First a few words about the film itself, the film seen as a film, as it were, before moving on to the much more interesting subject of the ideas behind it. It’s well enough made, but as a piece of cinematographic art there’s nothing very exciting to be said about it. The same goes for the acting: it’s always at least adequate, and sometimes even quite good, but never spectacular – this isn’t one of those films where you can easily forget you’re just watching actors playing a role. For the rest it’s entertaining enough, with some humour here and there, and Max Irons is a lot sexier in this film than in most of his photos. And that’s about it… which is a pity as the film is obviously trying to be much more, and to say something interesting about British society and the people who are running it (of which more later). Unfortunately, no matter what its message might be, this film is so unsubtle as to be doomed to fail almost completely in putting it across. To say that the characters are lacking in depth and development would be an understatement, in fact pretty well all of them are cardboard cut-out stereotypes, just representatives of their class. The dialogues, while occasionally amusing, aren’t particularly realistic.

— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…

The plot is believable up to the point where Alistair punches the landlord, but what happens after that is far too extreme to be convincing. Judging by what we’ve already seen of the various characters, Alistair might well be capable of going that far, but even allowing for the influence of alcohol and cocaine, none of the others seem nearly evil or psychopathic enough for that much physical violence, nor do they seem stupid enough or far enough out of it not to immediately realise the serious consequences of what they’re doing. Not that these people wouldn’t be capable of doing that much harm, in fact when they go on to their well-paid careers in business and politics they’ll be capable of doing much worse, but then they’ll be doing it via the system and will have others to do the dirty work for them. Maybe if the landlord had actually done something serious enough to get them that angry, the violence would have seemed plausible – but then he’d have borne part of the responsibility and the ‘baddies’ wouldn’t have seemed quite bad enough. Afterwards, when the club members try to find a way to protect themselves and it is decided that Miles is going to have to take the blame, the plot finally starts to get interesting, but that storyline just fizzles out when the police decide to arrest only Alistair. The film ends with him being sent down from Oxford, but going off to a promising career in the Conservative Party and looking very pleased with himself. That I did find believable, but as far as the dramatic structure of the film went it was still a bit of an anticlimax.

And now to the ideas behind the film. Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t already know, the Riot Club is inspired by the real-life Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson were members. At the most obvious, surface level, the message which is being so crudely shoved in our faces here is that the rich, privileged, British establishment, and especially the Conservatives, are a bunch of total bastards who despise anyone they consider to be ‘beneath them’, i.e. most of the rest of the human race, and are only interested in themselves and their own class. But I knew that already, and anyone who sees things differently will have no trouble writing this film off as a ridiculous piece of cheap left-wing propaganda. Thinking about the film more deeply, however, it struck me that there was something slightly more interesting going on. The attitude of some of the guys, Alistair especially, perfectly matches something which I’ve frequently come across in right-wing blogs and publications, namely the fact that so many well-off white males feel and act as though they were the victims of oppression, and having to fight for their very survival, whereas in actual fact they’re just having to adjust to the fact that some of the unearned privileges which they’ve traditionally enjoyed are being taken away from them. Over the last century or so, with the rise of feminism and the transfer, little by little, of ever more power from wealthy, white, upper-class males to other classes and ethnic groups and to women, the once unchallenged power of the elite has been gradually eroding. These are people who are used to getting whatever they want, but we see first the prostitute, then Miles’ down-market girlfriend Lauren, actually stand up to them and tell them what they can do with their money. They are left not only frustrated, but looking increasingly impotent and ridiculous – in spite of their wealth and position, they seem to be losing the power which always went with them. When Alistair makes his big speech at the end of the evening he sounds like a victim pleading for justice, and when they attack the landlord it looks like a desperate attempt to prove they are still in control. So maybe this film is less about who has the power, than about the fact that they’re losing it. The message is perhaps that the once-privileged are on their way down, and it comes with a warning that they’re not going to give up without a fight. I wonder if it’s a coincidence, by the way, that in this story written and directed by women, none of the three female characters (including the waitress) suffer any ill-effects, and it’s the sole male who ends up as the victim.

But unfortunately, whatever the message is, it’s unlikely to be taken seriously by many people as this film just wasn’t good enough to achieve that. A much better film could have been made with the same material, and might have actually made a useful or interesting point about British society, whereas this one was an entertaining enough way to spend a couple of hours but little more than that. Worth seeing, but once will probably be enough.

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Details:

title The Riot Club
director Lone Scherfig
released 2014
actors Max Irons
language English
subtitles français
seen 09/04/2015, at the cinema
further information IMDb

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