Rated R | Time: 1:47
“The Riot Club,” a poisonous satire of Britain’s upper class, adapted from Laura Wade’s play “Posh,” may puncture any lingering fantasies that good breeding is synonymous with noblesse oblige.
The small group of rich young men on whom it focuses belongs to an Oxford University dining club that has a fabled history of drunken mischief making. As they exercise their privilege at the club’s annual bacchanal, an alternate title for the movie comes to mind: “Boozing and Vomiting.”
Why such excess? As one member of this group, the Riot Club, explains in dulcet Oxonian cadences, “It is the last time we get to disport ourselves without everybody watching,” since many of the members will one day occupy “very important desks” in politics and business.
When they’re in their cups, these upper-class twits devoted to “debauchery raised to an art form — an almost spiritual release,” in the words of one, also carry snobbery and class hatred to savage extremes. The official response to their misbehavior and the damage it causes seems to be a weary, “Oh well, boys will be boys,” accompanied if necessary, by the writing of checks and the assurance, “We’ll pay for it.”
Their attitude when they lose control recalls the reports of a meltdown by Conrad Hilton III aboard a recent British Airways flight. According to witnesses, Hilton, 20, denounced members of the crew and his fellow passengers using the dreaded p-word (“peasants”). For the majority of us who can’t afford to buy ourselves out of a mess, the movie delivers a crude warning: The loathing and contempt by the entitled rich for hoi polloi is far more dangerous than we imagined.
But is it? Reading up on the Bullingdon Club, on which the fictional Riot Club is loosely based (the British prime minister, David Cameron, was a member), the cruelty fictionalized in the movie wasn’t as hateful as the film suggests, and the group didn’t assault a pub owner; the members turned against one another.
Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), the Danish filmmaker who directed the movie from a screenplay by Wade, has coaxed wonderfully nasty performances from a young cast led by Max Irons (son of Jeremy), whose character, Miles, is a handsome first-year student dazzled by the club’s mystique. Seeking to join the invitation-only organization, he attracts the sponsorship of the suave, supercilious Hugo (Sam Reid), a gay senior member who describes himself as descended from “the ragged end of the gentry.”
Not all Riot Club members are British blue bloods. Dimitri (Ben Schnetzer), scion of a Greek shipping family, may be filthy rich, but the others never cease reminding him that being Greek, he is not really one of them. The others are more of a blur, although the sour, dyspeptic Alistair (Sam Claflin), a first-year student whose older brother was a member, stands out.
The story is the standard allegory of an innocent golden boy tempted by the devil and handed a ringside seat to a circle of hell. Before induction, Miles acquires a “bootstrappy” Welsh girlfriend, Lauren (Holliday Grainger). “Being at Oxford is like being invited to a hundred parties all at once, and I want to go to all of them,” he gushes.
Enter the serpent. It isn’t very long before Miles, as part of his initiation, finds his room trashed and is blindfolded and forced to drink a cup of wine that contains wriggly bugs, spittle and a cigarette butt. He takes it in stride.
The core of the movie is the club’s celebratory annual dinner in the banquet room of a rural pub. The boys tear into a “10-bird chicken” (a fowl stuffed with other fowl) and consume gallons of booze and wine as rowdiness and chaos take over and the party devolves into a scary Dionysian free-for-all that curdles into collective rage. Women, including a reluctant escort hired to service the boys, and finally Lauren, who appears unexpectedly, enter the banquet room at their peril.
An ensuing brawl is both a horror show and a guilty pleasure you can’t take your eyes off of. Once it’s over, “The Riot Club” tries to stir up drama surrounding the aftermath. By this point, I was drained and quivering with fury and disgust.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
| Stephen Holden
The New York Times