Films aren’t their source texts, and they aren’t – unless otherwise stated – documentaries either. Debate rages as to the true purpose of a film (Art? Entertainment? Catharsis?), but going into one with the expectation it will somehow miraculously deliver the truth to us on a plate is naive. Still, this is a mistake critics ambling into previews of The Riot Club seem to insist on making.
I’ve made my point previously as to whether I think it’s useful to pin down film to a political agenda (if you don’t want to go fishing for the article, short version: I don’t) and the same can be said of its ability to incite regional or social stereotype. Without rehashing my previous argument, I think it’s valid to point out that all films are set within context. Scorsese: New York. Tarantino: the American South. The writers of BBC2’s Good Cop, two years ago: Liverpool. Films don’t speak for communities, or there would be a revolution of dissent every time we wrote conflict in a city area onto the screen. Good screen work simply flavours its project with the inflections of a particular social world, but neither appropriates, nor communicates for them; if it avoided them completely, the medium would lose something of its magic.
So, when Universal Studios invited me to preview The Riot Club at their official press screening last week, I entered the cinema studio with far less trepidation than some of the Old Oxonian reviewers calling the film out for not adequately representing their Oxford (circa, naturally, 1999). Apparently, the film has two categories, and two categories only, by which it can be judged: is it true to the political bite of its originating play, and does it honestly portray the Oxford experience of every single viewer who happens to have walked these hallowed academic cobbles?
Well. Firstly, any critic previewing a film who believes the translation of stage drama to screen doesn’t necessitate some kind of creative adaptation (or that the experience of myriad individuals can be accounted for in ninety minutes of screen time, while still miraculously generating a coherent plot and dramatic conflict) seriously needs to reconsider their understanding of the film medium as a whole. In the stage play Posh, we’re claustrophobically thrust into the company of ten young men in a single setting (the private dining room), descending – through turns of Wade’s acerbically comic dialogue – from refined banter to angry chaos; it’s bookended with scenes in a gentleman’s club’s drawing room, as a preview of the graduate version of The Riot Club, where troubles are washed away by money and the contacts in somebody’s little black book. Onstage, this is electric. Onscreen, this would shudder to a boring halt twenty minutes in. So, the plot is necessarily revitalised: scenes are drafted into college quads, Broad Street, tiny dorms, and a country manor, before we finally find ourselves locked away with the Riot Boys in their exclusive den.
Yes, it’s fair to say the film also neglects to concentrate its efforts on the entire student body of “our” Oxford. You don’t find the camera lingering on any of the other stereotypes we’re fond of. The Wadhamite vegan warriors don’t get a look in. Nobody is going to war over a slot at the O’Reilly either.
No, Scherfig’s Oxford is not my Oxford – nor is it the highly offended critic’s. It is also not the student population’s. Instead, it is an Oxford refracted through the imaginative collaboration of an Oscar-nominated director, an acclaimed dramatist, a gifted production team and a group of highly talented, gusty young actors. This might be an Oxford dreamt up without the insight of somebody who spent their formative days here, but such speculations are the driving force of all good stories. Let’s not change our minds now, just because it angles close to home. “Accuracy” was never fiction’s thing anyway.
Quite simply, there’d be no fun or fight in a film without a splash of imagination – regardless of how much they tell you at Night School to “write what you know”.
Instead, the film glances, anthropologically, into its imaginary world: into the lives of young people who, for the first time, are supposed to ask questions about the way they live, and who they’re supposed to be. The storyline is fairly predictable: two affluent new boys (Max Irons as Miles and Sam Claflin as Alistair, respectively) join the same college, swap dorms (in a telling exchange with Oedipally-challenged Alistair’s vicarious father), and, nominated by seasoned patrons, are invited to initiate in a secretive, privileged drinking society known as The Riot Club. Despite their ideological differences – the boys are virtually at one another’s throats in a telling tute scene, where vehemently leftwing Miles is countered by a cynical Alistair – both are invited to join the club. Ignoring Lauren’s advice, Miles is enticed; the camaraderie, promise of hedonism and, most importantly, of group membership located within that intense space between brotherhood and friendship, are too much to resist. But as the plot unravels, tensions of power inevitably begin to surface within the club itself, and – when these are married to an outdated sense of entitlement, individual bitternesses, a pervading sense that these boys have no idea how to behave in the real world, and a cocktail of alcohol, coke and rage – things take a sinister turn.
Lone Scherfig doesn’t do polemical films; she’s too experienced and too respectful of her own art form to digress that way. It saves itself from being the kind of condemnatory, embittered satire it might have become in the hands of even the most talented Brit director (escaping the veneer of prejudice in art is much more difficult when we’re living within the systems engineering it). There’s enough self-aware appreciation of the exclusive allure of these clandestine worlds in the project to stop it becoming hypocritically preachy: the fraction of a second’s thought before the landlord can respond to Claflin’s menacingly goading, “You love me; you want to be me”, and Hugo’s reminder to Miles when he starts bailing on the fracas, “you wanted to be part of this” – these are speaking as much to (and maybe for) the audience as they are the characters. Everybody involved in The Riot Club (both fictional and real) from production team to audience, is constantly reminded of the seductive appeal of groups like this one – groups that supposedly guarantees friendship, hegemony, privilege, a good time and, crucially, protection. They simultaneously repulse and fascinate.
Like any decent film, The Riot Club avoids hollering a single political message from the rigging; it isn’t a broadsheet opinion column and it’s not trying to be. The characters are by turns sympathetic and chilling for a good reason – to complicate our reaction to them. They might be a charming band of thugs, but they’re thugs nonetheless; and yet, all thugs have their reasons. The sickening crunch of Sam Claflin’s head whacking the sidewalk opposite Blackwell’s during the exposition sequence is enough to get us asking the right questions: when it comes down to his suspicious, resentful attitude – can we blame him? With all the prerequisite disillusioned markers of hooliganism, veneered in a particularly enticing brand of confident, drawling charisma, these boys feed our fascination with the decadently filthy. Even as spectators who can never access their world – a) because this is fiction and b) because if it were real, we’d “never be the right sort” to join – we’re complicit in feeding the fascination that is posh boys at play. It’s a film intelligent enough to realise we can’t escape how much we love to hate these boys… so we’re the ones egging them on.
The strength lies in inspired casting, and the management of the relationships between characters. It is not a plot that lends itself to being easily driven by one protagonist, so it doesn’t; we might largely trail Miles, but it’s not just his show. This is not a piece for a leading man and his supporting cast, and in rending a film where its key motif is the oscillating dynamics of power, Scherfig has harnessed and exposed some of the brightest young stars of today’s film scene. Freddie Fox as the hapless, easily-led Club President James quivers and deigns in all the right places for a film playing with the theme of hypocrisy; Ben Schnetzer, Jack Farthing, Matthew Beard, Josh O’Connor and Olly Alexander counterpoint with all the raucous eagerness of kids willing to play along as club back-members vying for status; and Australian actor Sam Reid imbues an out-of-time Wildean Hugo with the correct degree of repression in every sense of the word. Veteran actor Tom Hollander’s cameo role is lived-in, expressing the kind of lazy sense of security that becomes any gang’s seasoned old-timer. And it is in the “opposition cast” – the three female leads, and Tony Way as the eager but conflicted landlord – that the film shines brightest: the opposition illustrates a still-standing chasm between classes, but not in a way that overtly condemns one over the other. The misunderstandings are mutual.
The three drawing names of the cast are undoubtedly Miles (Irons), Alistair (Claflin) and fellow Brit boy Douglas Booth, playing the viciously charismatic Harry Villiers. Reviewers’ focus seems to fall repeatedly on these actors’ looks, as though attractive faces carry performances by default. Actually, good looks would hinder them if uncoupled with serious attention to actually acting the parts; they aren’t meant to be wholly likeable, after all. Max Irons might come from acting pedigree, but that doesn’t mean he avoids working hard at capturing Miles’ conflicted mix of well-meaning, moralistic but curious and eager youth. He loses his grip at exactly the right rate to make the performance heartbreakingly nuanced, and believable. Booth’s womanising champion fencer Villiers is obviously seductive, but in a chilling, mechanical, dead-eyed sort of way; affecting that level of feigned interest, before allowing it to disintegrate into desperate misogyny, is a feat made so much harder when everyone seems to expect a typical leading man. He imbues gravitas into his role as covert leader of the pack, while still affecting the right insecurities. His smile is one you don’t want to be on the wrong end of. Booth’s accomplished, sinister performance is an actor’s, not a model’s.
Ultimately, it is Claflin’s Alistair Ryle who ends up show-stealing; undercurrents of darkness are visible from the off, but disguised by a considered, elegant maturity with an attention to detail that echoes the heyday of acting which characterised some of the great 1970s films. He lingers and takes his time over his performance where he pleases, building to a gleefully sociopathic climax with unnerving confidence. If Claflin isn’t winning awards yet, then he ought to be soon: his treatment of a complex, vulnerable but ultimately disgusting character foreshadows what should be an illustrious career in character acting. Without giving away spoilers, watch out for the moment which made a room full of professional critics gasp in horror, and you’ll see what I mean.
In putting these actors together, where Wade and Scherfig have definitely managed to echo the Oxford we know is in the hesitating, bumbling interactions and halting miscommunications of fresher’s week and that very first Michaelmas term. It is the bittersweet inverse-Lady and the Tramp relationship that blossoms between Lauren (Holliday Grainger) and Miles we see some truth about the fallibility of our own “cleverness”; that particular chemistry which only exists in the novelty of opposite worlds is palpable. She is the “bootstrappy northerner” dazzled by Miles’s easygoing confidence, the first in her family to attend Oxbridge, meritocratic and unpretentious; he is equally enamoured of her gutsiness, the fierceness that gets her to where she is and sets her apart from “those other girls” he’s known before. Miles and Lauren illuminate how class is important to the film, but the film does not betray a preference for state school over public school (as a metonym for lower class over upper) so much as it highlights the way today’s Oxford becomes a melting pot of young, keen but as-yet unexpanded minds. The anachronistic Riot Boys, clambering to hold onto their historical privilege, become monsters simply because they have no real place in that world – because they refuse to let go of a nonexistent fable that privileges them for no reason but name. The Riot Club cares about Oxford, but its cast of characters can’t comprehend what Oxford is. They scoot along the underbelly of a world that has moved on from them, and the power they have access to only operates in the shadows – which is what makes their existence so tragic.
Whether or not Miles’ and Lauren’s relationship turns out for better or worse, their awkward, not-quite-on-the-same-page-but-trying interactions are a keen-eyed metaphor for how this university takes its students from the edge of confident adolescence, and tips them over into the unexplored terrain of adulthood. It’s a metaphor that persists throughout. Mistakes happen. People are hurt. Friendship does not always follow the rules we set for it. There are uglier sides to all of us than we ever imagined growing up, and we only figure out where we stand when we’re confronted with the opportunity to choose.
Of course, it isn’t perfect (and I’m aware people are going to think I’ve been brainwashed by the nice people at Universal if I say otherwise). Yes, the opening sequence – a soft-edged throwback to the 1700s and the days of the club’s original founding, with the dreamy focus of seasoned cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov to thank for its odd surreality – jars a little with the pared-back anti-Hollywood realism of the rest of the film, but our flashback dalliance is brief enough to be forgiven as a necessity to plot set-up. Also: Aston Martin, Broad Street. I’ll leave that one up to you. But that final shot of Claflin, all one-time smile and reassembled self, tailored coat and leather glove? Cinema gold.
The truth is this: it’s a political film, yes – in some ways, all films are. It bites where it should hurt into people who need to remember nobody is above their past, and money and connections do not absolve us of our mistakes. As such, it is bound to cause controversy. Films will always dally with reality, just as much as reality will have its hand in fantasy. Anybody who refuses to admit the Riot Boys to the cobblestones of an imaginary Oxford is somebody confusing the two, and that smacks suspiciously of fear – fear, perhaps, which only arises when something bowls too close to home. I stand by my former prediction, that the film is a fresh interrogation of gang culture; but, along with this, it is an interrogation of what it means to be young and on the cusp of adulthood. Before Posh came to the theatre, a 2006 Contemporary Theatre Review interview with Laura Wade called her an “urban fabulist”. They got it right. Wade deals in fables; Posh was her swansong, and The Riot Club, its cinematic realisation. It is a cautionary tale about the mistakes we can make when we chase our place in our world, and a dangerous fable of youth in revolt. Go and see it. You have to.
Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club is released in UK cinemas on September 19th.