Downton Abbey: Where are we now?

Downton Abbey has, since 2010, been praised for its costumed elegance and all-encompassing entertainment value, but also criticised for its leisurely pace, its futile storylines and its blasé approach to the details of history. For some, it is an emotionally gripping period romp, but for others it is nothing more than a soap opera dressed up in First World War garb. Its plots are often silly, and its dialogue sillier to an audience accustomed to a more liberal society, and after the crushing special that ‘ruined Christmas’, and the departure of two of the series’ shining lights in Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown-Findlay, season four felt lethargic and directionless. Episodes passed without any moments of note, and while the stakes were raised for some, most of it failed to live up to the energy of the World War One stories of earlier years. It even had some yearning for the time the dastardly Thomas kidnapped and then rescued Lord Grantham’s dog – a dramatic highlight indeed.

But Julian Fellowes and his team were not to be undone.

Though it opened to disappointingly low viewing figures, season five restored some of the impetus to the Abbey, with plotlines both upstairs and downstairs, old and new, bringing new movement when everything was grinding to a halt. There was, of course, the usual assortment of trivial strands and wasted characters; Daisy’s struggling with maths got off to a slow start, the Barrow-Baxter conflict still lacked the weight it requires and even Edith’s secret child, a plot line which ought to carry more interest than the rest, felt like filler more than anything else. But elsewhere, other characters were in their elements. Maggie Smith, ever-mischievous and eternally feisty, took her scheming to new heights in her attempts to stay high in the pecking order, dragging Penelope Wilton, who is rather too dry on her own, up with her. Branson (Allen Leech), or Tom, if you would prefer, was embroiled in more controversy over his relationship with the strong and opinionated schoolteacher Sarah Bunting, whose praise of the new Labour Prime Minister sent shockwaves across an already tense dinner table.

And then there was the fire. Like all great Downton moments, it had such a momentous potential, and could have sent the lives of all into disarray. Still, it ended up satisfyingly easy to resolve, and only damaging a single room (but not without ruining a couple of reputations in the process). And typically, Thomas was there to save not only the day, but also his own skin. For such an obviously evil guy, he has a despicably charmed life.

All the usual components of a Downton series were present. The threatening – or exciting, depending on who you ask – prospect of change was ever-present, waved in the audience’s faces in the political debate, the shifts in power or more simply in Daisy’s pondering of the future. That Lord Grantham is shocked whenever there is a challenge to his stately way of life is remarkable, given how often it happens, and it would be a surprise if there were no more before Christmas. Another staple, the silly dialogue, remained as entertaining as ever. The season opener’s winner had to be Michelle Dockery’s ‘I’m going upstairs to take off my hat’. There were also the facial expressions, ranging from the shocked and disgusted, courtesy of Hugh Bonneville and Jim Carter, to the shrewdly suspicious from Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and Lady Mary couldn’t miss out on an opportunity to take a sharp verbal jab at her sister.

Classic Downton.

But it would only be Downton if something truly banal snatched the limelight from a more orthodox source of excitement. And it delivered in style as Molesley (Kevin Doyle) tried to fight the aging process to disastrously conspicuous results. Like the Dowager Countess, Molesley needs no help to create some comedy, but while hers is based on her savage tongue and cutting put-downs, his rest solely on a unique buffoonery.

With a new lease of life, Downton Abbey must answer some of its questions before it asks any more.

What exactly has Bates done? Will Mary settle on one man from her ever fluctuating pool of suitors? What happened to that Gregson chap in Germany? And will Lady Rose find something useful to do, or will she remain a nuisance forever?

The solutions could be exciting, or criminally tedious, but only time will tell. Until then, we can expect more raised eyebrows, more wonderful costumes and more ludicrous side stories in the meandering towards resolution. We can only hope that the drama of the series opener is sustained, and that everything stays at Matthew Crawley-era levels of entertainment, rather than lapsing into the pointless and forgettable. Fellowes has at his fingertips great potential both in terms of plot and in terms of actors (Anna Chancellor was brilliant in the opener, but Richard E. Grant could take things to new heights). Whether he takes full advantage of it remains to be seen.


PHOTO/Bas Sijpkes


Review: Gone Girl

Only one word can really describe how I felt leaving the screening of Gone Girl this week.


The story begins when protagonist Nick Dunne (Affleck), receives a call from a nosy neighbour whilst at work, alerting him to the fact that his front door is wide open and his cat is sat outside the house. Nick returns home to find his wife, Amy (Pike), gone and glass tables overturned. It’s Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary and something is amiss.

The police are called and an investigation follows. This investigation soon becomes America’s biggest news story as the media discovers that Amy, a beautiful New Yorker, and the inspiration for America’s favourite children’s books, Amazing Amy, is presumed to have been murdered by her cool and calm husband, Nick.

I did not kill my wife. I am not a murderer.

These two phrases are repeated again and again by Nick as he becomes the primary suspect in the investigation into his wife’s disappearance. As time goes on you begin to hate Nick more and more as it becomes glaringly obvious that he has been lying to the police and is withholding information.

True to the book, this film is told from the alternating perspective of Nick and Amy. Nick’s narrative is told in the present, whilst Amy’s gives us a glimpse into how the relationship between Nick and herself has developed over the course of their marriage. It is from Amy’s narration that you begin to see the cracks in Nick’s story – or is it the other way round? Is Nick lying? Or is Amy lying? Maybe they’re both lying? (Good luck trying to wrap your head around this one.)

You ever hear the expression that the simplest answer is often the correct one?

Actually, I’ve never found that to be true.

Keep this in mind when you think of Gone Girl, because I guarantee that you will not be able to predict the outcome of this film. Around half way through this film, a huge plot twist is revealed that changes everything. Prior to this game changer you’re probably thinking that you’ve got it all sussed and wondering how they could possibly drag out the outcome of this story for another one and a half hours. Perhaps if you’re a thriller fanatic, you’re still not quite convinced that all is as it seems, but either way, you won’t be prepared for just how dark and disturbing this film gets. When you think that this story has reached its peak, it just gets darker and darker and darker to the point where you begin to seriously question the mental stability of the scriptwriter, and author, Gillian Flynn. How could someone write a tale this disturbing? Possibly the most disturbing thing, however, is that this film ends with a cliff-hanger – the story is not over and I dread to think where Fincher and Flynn will take us next.

Quite simply, this film is a masterpiece.

Gone Girl combines a darkly chilling tale that cleverly analyses some of the big questions of our time (including gender stereotypes, marriage, even the obsession with celebrity) with a near perfect cast and script, all of which is delivered under Fincher’s brilliant direction. Rosamund Pike’s performance as Amy will stay with you long after you have left the cinema screen in what is probably one of the most mesmerizing performances of the year, which places her as a serious contender for ‘Best Actress’ at next year’s Oscars. Gone Girl also stands in good stead to be nominated for numerous other awards, Best Score, Best Editing, Best Director and Best Picture just to name a few, but with a few months to go, we’ll just have to wait and see. Impeccably crafted, this is not one to miss.




Ghost World: A tale of fitting in

Adapted from Dan Clowes’ adult comic book of the same name, Ghost World can be described as a collection of moments depicting a near-universal transition: the end of high school and formal education, to finding a job, and the other realities associated with adulthood (or thereabouts).The protagonists are two teenage girls, Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson); best friends, comrades in arms, connected by their judgemental outlook but increasingly alienated by their diverging paths.

The most refreshing aspect of this film initially is Enid and Rebecca themselves. For once, these teenage girls are not represented as shallow airheads. Instead, their characters could be considered an inspiration for Ellen Page’s Juno; blunt, sarcastic, judgemental. Incredibly judgemental, in fact. “I just hate all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers,” sneers Enid after being approached by a guy advertising his upcoming music gig. Much like Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, phonies seem to be Enid and Rebecca’s greatest enemies. But their disdain is not merely limited to the hipsters of their school and town; whilst watching an ‘indie’ comedian on TV, Enid remarks, “if he’s so weird, how come he’s wearing Nikes?”

Rebecca saying that a guy gives her a “total boner” is another highlight. This candidness is appealing because it is relatable.

As the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that whilst Rebecca is preparing herself for the realities of adulthood and is perhaps growing out of her judgemental teenage years, Enid is struggling. She inadvertently befriends an outcast who, in his mid-forties, has only an extensive record collection to be proud of. Seymour (Steve Buscemi) also finds himself on the outskirts of society: “I can’t relate to 99% of humanity,” he says after yet another failed date. Enid begins to realise that whilst things that seemed like they’d last forever – High School, her and Rebecca’s friendship – are over, there are some things that do stay the same.

It is at this point that Ghost World, which some would interpret as a ‘coming-of-age’ film, makes a statement many of us don’t want to hear: struggling to fit in doesn’t stop when adolescence is over. Some individuals spend their whole lives not quite understanding the people around them.

If you’re looking for a feel-good ending or reassurance that everything will be alright, then you won’t find it here. What you will find, however, are two very relatable girls and a story that, whilst containing almost universal experiences, is also incredibly insightful; a jarringly accurate portrayal of young womanhood, at times amusing, at times overwhelmingly depressing, but wholly relatable.



Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire: Good things come to those who wait

It may not have the seamless blend of drama and comedy of Breaking Bad, the expansive fantasy of Game of Thrones or the cool charm of Mad Men, but HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has as much going for it as any show in the so-called ‘Second Golden Age’ of television. Since 2009, it has delighted and amazed audiences with the career of politician-cum-criminal Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, and his personal and professional troubles during the prohibition era. And now, as it enters its fifth and final season, it must maintain the qualities that distinguish it from the multitudes of drama series in order to cement its position alongside the greats, and not tumble into obscurity or, worse, undo all the good work it has already done.

Were it not for the prominent inclusion of one young Al Capone, you might be forgiven for thinking that Boardwalk Empire was wholly fictitious. Prohibition is hardly something prominent on most curriculums, and perceptions are broadly shaped by the Jay Gatsbys of the 1920s and their end of the bootlegging trade. A full understanding of the shadier, less glamourous side is rare. Consequently, the criminals and politicians who make up the Boardwalk Empire ensemble are a deft mix of real life figures, contorted by dramatic license, or total fabrications, who fit effortlessly into the authentic world.

And it is this authenticity which makes Boardwalk Empire what it is.There is a great enthusiasm for accuracy in the costumes, sets, storylines and dialogue which allows for total immersion into Nucky’s world. With period dramas often under the scrutiny of pedants and passionate historians, and the likes of Downton Abbey guilty of numerous anachronistic offenses, the precision with which every element is designed and realised is vital both in terms of avoiding criticism and creating a real, captivating world in which the drama can play out.

It is lavish when it has to be lavish, simple when it has to be simple, and doesn’t compromise on historical integrity for spectacle nor comfort.

The production values are not, however, the only elements which make Boardwalk Empire so enduring and prosperous among such remarkable competition. The experience and personality behind it is key. The creator is Terence Winter, one of the writers of The Sopranos, while Martin Scorsese is an executive producer (he also directed the pilot). Although Scorsese could be seen to be in unfamiliar territory on the small screen, both he and Winter are clearly comfortable with fast-talking, short-tempered, brutal characters. Both have a pedigree which gives Boardwalk Empire a much needed edge. There are times where episodes seem to be going nowhere, and business talk is drowning out the more interesting, tense moments, but the audience can remain confident that, with such acclaimed names behind the show, there are always clues to look out for, and always something bigger bubbling under the surface.

But this simmering tension can bring about problems. Although the characters’ actions leave greater imprints on both each other and on the audience, their words are plenty.

Boardwalk Empire is, without a doubt, a slow-burner, and not every episode has the release of a shootout or a fistfight. Thus the cast must be talented and balanced, and they are.

Steve Buscemi, another Sopranos alumnus, leads the line with mesmerising charm. He can be graceful or severe, gentle or prickly, welcoming or cold, and, against a sea of middle aged men, his striking, almost manic, appearance allows him to catch the audience’s attention. It could be argued that the show is difficult to follow because, in such a large cast, it is hard to keep track of who each dark haired, middle-aged man in a suit is, but with the man described in Fargo as ‘kinda funny looking’ playing him, Nucky Thompson is able to stand out to great effect.

While everything eventually comes back to Nucky, the broad scope of the show demands a quality ensemble. While everyone has their best moments, there are three who stood out from the beginning, and will help to share the Buscemi’s burden into the final season. Among such vicious and tough characters, Kelly Macdonald gives a more vulnerable and empathetic performance as Nucky’s mistress-turned-wife Margaret.

Although not completely innocent, MacDonald bridges the gap between the audience and the brutality of the show, and lends an equally tragic, but more personal storyline against the grand political narrative.

Michael Shannon’s zealous but slimy fallen Prohibition agent is one of the most interesting of the characters, and, while everyone rests in a grey morality, his troubles and disasters are perhaps more compelling than most of the rest, as he fluctuates wildly from one end of the moral spectrum to the other. Finally, Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White is deliciously hostile, ruthless and explosive, but is also a brilliantly sympathetic leader and someone who fights not only for his political allies, but also doggedly for his people and his family.

The early seasons of Boardwalk Empire had enough time in building the world and characters to cover such diverse themes as religion, fidelity, race, nationalism and family. As the plot begins to turn towards a suitable conclusion, such depth has, at points, fallen by the wayside, to be replaced more obviously with the story and individual characters. It is possible that some of the quiet intelligence of the past has transformed into more spectacular dramatic flair, but the overall appeal remains unblemished. No matter how direct it gets, the groundwork has been done so that it never becomes stupid, incoherent or superficial.

The final season must look to consolidate everything that has contributed to its diverse and colourful characters, as well as tie up loose ends both thematically and of the story itself.

Demanding quite a high level of concentration to keep track of every twist and character introduction, it is hardly the easiest show to binge-watch late into the night, but Boardwalk Empire has a tone and cast which has allowed it to compete with the most popular of shows. Buscemi’s fine performances are enough to place Nucky Thompson alongside Walter White, House of Cards’s Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano and the Wire’s Jimmy McNulty as one of the 21st century’s great TV antiheroes, while his supporting cast are engaging and affecting. It will be a shame to see the back of them, but an immense pleasure to watch their high and lows in the final throes of Prohibition.


At Dinner - The Riot Club (UMI)

“It’s a choice between the Hollywood ending – or something more complex” : an interview with Lone Scherfig, director of The Riot Club

Lone Scherfig is a busy woman. At the moment, she’s preparing for an evening’s reunion with the cast of her incendiary new film, The Riot Club  (if you don’t know anything about this, then you’ve either been living under an Oxford-repelling rock all summer, or you’ve been tactfully avoiding reading any of my excited articles – I’ll stop soon, I promise). Following last week’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, they’re regrouping at BFI’s official London screening tonight, before the UK’s general release on Friday. Intermittently, with this project pretty much wrapped, Lone has been working in the States; meanwhile her cast members have moved on to their next films (something about the Hunger Games for one, something with the Wachowskis, of Matrix fame, for another…)


But, in the last few days, press coverage for The Riot Club has exploded, so Lone’s phone is very busy. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few people who can get on the other end of the line – she’s kindly agreed to an interview about the project, and when Universal connects us (promptly on time, making me feel bad, in retrospect, for over-enthusiastically keeping her from her next interrogation for an extra eight minutes – sorry, guys!), she’s warm, friendly, and very keen to get something straight from the off: “I hope you understand how much we [everyone working on The Riot Club] all love and admire Oxford – there’s no criticism of Oxford in the film!”

Lone (UMI)

Having already seen the film at the press screening, and having personally come to the conclusion that the film makes a big point of distancing its disillusioned and disliked fictional characters from the rest of the Oxford population, I tell her not to worry about this. It shouldn’t hang over anybody’s heads – film crew, cast, or students – as to whether the Riot Boys (the vaguely Bullingdonesque gang of overprivileged hooligans keeping themselves away from, and above, the rest of the student population; and the exclusive secret dining club into which protagonist Miles [Max Irons] and antagonist Alistair [Sam Claflin] are inducted) represent us. It’s made very clear that they don’t; the film hinges on the schism between “us” and “them”. As Douglas Booth’s character Harry Villiers distinguishes, “we’re at the top university in the world; and so are twenty thousand other people – but there are only ten in the Riot Club”. The boys aren’t real, but if they were, most of us wouldn’t know them – or if we did, wouldn’t recognise the authority they think they have. And therein lies the film.


Still, with billboard and bus posters amplifying the bristly, entitled arrogance of the characters played by Claflin and Booth, and the film trailer snapping briskly to scenic shots of Broad Street, spirally college turrets, and the Bod, it generated enough speculation before it even hit the press; so Lone’s nerves are understandable. Now that the film has premiered in Toronto, what does she think about reactions to it so far – has she been pleased?


“I was quite relieved with The Guardian,” she tells me (The Guardian saw the film in Toronto, ahead of the UK press release), “because I know that some of the journalists and film critics [in the UK] will have gone to Oxford and Cambridge, and will love that world, and will want to protect it – for their own good reasons,” she adds, thoughtfully. “They’d know whether we were getting it right or not, and I knew we were running a risk of criticism. Britain can be be very critical; it’s almost an art form to do well-written criticism!”


She laughs here, benign: I get the impression Lone’s attitude towards film is an inherently discursive one – that she’d rather a film were controversial if it ignited discussion, than play it safe and remain a closed book. “I’m so relieved that they saw the nuance in the film, and the attempts at doing something that was cinematic and complex.” And what of non-UK audiences and critics? “In Toronto it had good reviews from the main trade papers – it was great to see that [even though] it was looking at class issues, it could be shown in a completely different context [abroad] and to those with a completely different perspective, and still resonate.”

Sam Claflin 2 - The Riot Club (UMI)


Evidently, films and other art forms which look at political and social motifs resonate hugely outside of the systems they use as their backdrop; the popularity of The Riot Club abroad, before it’s even hit home shores, testifies to this. And fair play to it: it may occupy a space uneasy to stomach for the politicians whose own past seems to converge (or diverge, as some keep stressing) with the plot line, but Lone – who isn’t a British national, and didn’t grow up within the British political system, despite a body of work whose most prolific output is in English language films such as the Oscar-nominated An Education – has a seasoned outlook on the synthetic nature of filmmaking: she is hugely aware of its unreality, and wants her audience to know that too. I ask her about what she thinks of the pervading perception that the film is anti-elitist and propagandist.


“Well, no matter what, I do feel an obligation to get to know that world [where I set a film] and share it with an audience who doesn’t know it either,” she concedes; “I think because it’s not my own world, I have no false sense of security. I really need to make an effort to get things right – to know what it is when you differ from reality. You must know you are doing just that.” She continues: “It’s based on a play,” (Laura Wade’s Posh, a sensational hit at the Royal Court and the Duke of York’s), “so it’s already very much in a reality of its own. Laura created a play with its own world, with its own language, traditions from that club, names, backgrounds – it’s all a created world, but it looks like a real world, and of course you shoot it in a real world, so you have to find a way to get that balance right.”


That real world she’s talking about, at least regarding The Riot Club, is, of course, Oxford University. Anticipating some sensitivities Oxford students might have about the way the film represents them, Lone’s immediate gesture is to assure me that the film has never been about damning the university. And, when you watch it, you realise that it really isn’t; in fact, there’s a celebration in there of the odd, uniquely cerebral culture we’re so accustomed to, simmering away under the surface of her strange cast of characters, whose self-imposed exile from their more ordinary student counterparts is written into their comic in-group discussion. “We are all in complete awe of Oxford, for very good reasons!” she chimes, speaking for herself and the rest of the film’s cast and team. “The more you research that place, the more you understand how incredibly valuable it is. And we also hope to show it; when you see a glimpse of a tutorial – we hope to show that these boys are very isolated from the Oxford world.”


I mention the way she’s caught the unique dynamic of freshers’ week and that first Michaelmas at Oxford, when people from all kinds of backgrounds are melted together for the first time; how the dialogue seems a very exclusive (but entirely authentic) representation of the uncertain way new Oxford students communicate with one another. “Well, we have a character who has both feet on the ground, who shows the audience that the rest of Oxford just isn’t like that,” she explains. She means Lauren (played by Holliday Grainger), the “bootstrappy northerner” whose meritocratic attendance at the university is unfathomable to some of the more pretentious members of the club, including Claflin’s Alistair. “She helps to show how the boys isolate themselves,” Lone tells me. “And I think Miles [Max Irons's character, who initially falls for Lauren] shows that dilemma very well. He’s seduced by the club, and all that fun that they have, that’s on one side; and then, on the other, he hears Lauren saying, “these people are not your friends, are you sure you want to do this?”, and he’s saying, “it’s an honour to be asked.” He’s young, he’s naive, he’s not sure what he thinks and feels, and I think that’s quite common. It goes for if you were a member of a street gang as well; so in that sense, I hope the film is about more than what you see – but not about Oxford.” She pauses, before musing, “And that’s the thing – no matter what group or tribe you’re in, you can always leave.”

Pub In Oxford - Riot Club (UMI)


The tribe she’s talking about build themselves into their own exclusive world the way any group does – via a shared style of communication. A side-note to freshers here, too: ignore the film reviewers ranting about how the language is unrepresentative of the way “Oxford people” talk – of course it is, because Laura Wade (who adapted her own play for the screen) has invented the discourse herself, but I promise that you likely will here some wonderfully wacky coinages when you first get here. At first, the tongue-twisty, verbose nature of the Riot Boys’ dialogue might seem hilarious, parodic even (“oh my wow” should be on t-shirt fronts); but crafting an endearingly exclusive speech pattern is one of the hardest tasks a writer can give themselves, particularly because it invites the audience’s ears to expect harmony – harmony then shattered by the disturbingly violent turn that the group’s behaviour takes. I ask Lone how difficult it was to translate that onto the screen. “I’m thinking it’s a good thing if people see how Oxford isn’t really like that,” she laughs. “But as a film director, you do what you can to make sure that the tone and the heart, and the original thinking of the script, survive the film machine, because I really loved the original script – if I didn’t like the script, I wouldn’t have directed it! So I wanted to add a cinematic layer: to get the best out of the actors, and make it visual, and make the soundtrack work – but the core is basically the script.” And she is full of high praise for Wade: “Laura knows the script and her own characters better than anyone, so I always trusted that she knew best. And maybe it’s because I’m a writer myself that I can appreciate her writing so much. I don’t feel the need to take over.”


The conversation turns to the way The Riot Club fits within the rest of Lone’s body of work; specifically, to how it situates itself next to her last film, 2011’s One Day, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. Initially, the films couldn’t seem more different on the surface: The Riot Club with its core cast of ten unruly young, privileged men, and One Day‘s heartbreaking twenty years’ will-they-won’t-they romantic friendship. But actually, One Day plays with our expectations: having led us to believe it’s a two-person show, a tragic twist reveals it has, in fact, been a bildungsroman for Dexter (Jim Sturgess’s character) all along. Manipulating our perception of who is in charge of the screen is something The Riot Club also does, but on a larger – and considerably more sinister – scale. Does Lone draw many parallels between the films?


“It’s tricky, because sometimes if you want the audience to feel more fulfilled, you come up with an ending that is more predictable; in the case of One Day - which also has a class conflict – in turning it into Dexter’s story, it became more acceptable that he loses Emma. He is posh, too – but also insensitive, spoilt, immature in the beginning, and then over time, because he meets Emma at university, he becomes a really wonderful man twenty years later. Tracking that development through the film, it was more shocking but it made more sense – the audience can understand that Emma died for a reason. But in The Riot Club, I think if the film had finished more in harmony, saying “ok, there are problems but we know what the solution is”, then it would have treated the audience at a different level. It is more important to ask questions than pretend everything is going to be ok. It’s a choice: do we have a Hollywood ending – where the good guy wins and the villains are punished – or go for something more complex? We discussed it a lot, and we went for the more surprising version.”

During Dinner - The Riot Club (UMI)

It’s interesting to mention the “Hollywood ending”, because Lone’s film, like so many of her others, avoids the high-gloss Hollywood veneer across multiple dimensions. I’ve always thought Lone’s filmmaking style is beautiful, if decidedly anti-L.A. School, and in the case of The Riot Club (helped immensely, no doubt, by the diffusive cinematography of collaborating Director of Photography, Sebastian Blenkov) it is aesthetically meticulous: particularly with regards to tiny details, especially in the case of the film’s costume department, helmed by Steven Noble. I reference a few key moments: two near-identical fine grey jumpers on Miles and Alistair in the closing sequence, the final shot where Sam Claflin replaces his glove, and perhaps most effectively, the gradual disintegration of the costumes throughout the dining room sequence. How much work goes into creating shots like that?


“They are amazingly good at what they do!” Lone enthuses warmly. “We talk a lot in the beginning, but from then on in, you let people do their work, because they can do it so much better than I can! There were a lot of actors to direct, so I surrounded myself with a lot of people I trust, who know what they’re doing. It was incredibly helpful the way the costumes deteriorated, because when actors come in, they don’t shoot things in script order, so having the makeup and costume [specifically altered every time] helps the actors find the character’s stage in their dramatic life at that point – Steven and his team did a really great job.”


And speaking of actors – the cast is huge, yet the roles are still well-developed: did they work into their roles having already been supplied with how to act them, or did they construct them as they went? “The latter,” Lone confirms at once. “They all came from different backgrounds – different acting schools, some had no background in education, one is American, one is Australian… So I would help them find the characters in different ways, because that’s my job as director; but they were fantastic – when it came to creating the atmosphere, they enjoyed each other and they trusted each other, and they let each other take the lead. It gives you a chance to see things for the first time, things that you would only see in that one take, and I think that makes it convincing: you see that they’re not copying anything – you see that it’s original.”

Max Irons : Miles - The Riot Club (UMI)


One of the film’s biggest achievements is the way that the soundtrack aligns with some of the key moments in the film; I ask Lone whether the percussive edge, which really drives some of the scenes, was intentionally so powerful. “Well, the composer was originally a drummer,” she tells me. “He started out as a drummer before he completed his classical conservatoire education. We felt that these drums had a very tribal element to them, it really suited the film – primarily it’s in the initiation scenes, where it kind of adds to the suspense and fun and energy of it.”


Without giving too much away, the film is hilarious and gut-wrenching in equal measures: there’s a pivotal moment so sickeningly brutal, everyone at the professional press screening winced in tandem. Was it difficult for Lone, who has never tackled violence in her films before, to direct it – and bring that side out of actor Sam Claflin, who also hadn’t taken on anything quite so violent before this? “Well, it is choreographed of course, because you can’t really do that to a person – but I wanted it to be violent; because otherwise, it would have lost its politics,” she tells me. “They don’t do anything you don’t see in a lot of other films, but they do it in a different genre. And that’s why people are shocked. I’ve had to see that scene more times than anybody, and I still think it’s frightening. But you hear things that are as bad, and it had to be something as bad or worse than something happening in every second pub in Belfast on a Saturday night.”


Which, oddly enough, echoes my first piece of coverage for The Oxford Student regarding this film – the reinterpretation of the gang film genre, taking a time-tried mainstay of cinema and refreshing it from the perspective of a new social world. Obviously people are quite shocked, decrying the film – which begins, seductively, with humour – for its turn to violence as though it’s some kind of political move. But does Lone think that people should start readdressing the way that they look at films – not fearing them, or inflecting them out exclusively into politics, but taking a more all-encompassing approach instead? She thinks about this for a moment.


“I mean, for me it’s just a privilege to be able to make films that you can’t label more easily,” she decides. “If you work on a bigger scale, in the American studio system, you have to do something that sticks to the genre you’re shooting in. But in Britain, you can do something different, which I really appreciate.”


On that note, we have to wrap – some unfortunate interviewer has been left waiting thanks to my overeager questioning, and poor Lucy from Universal has to gently remind me to look at the clock. But, unsurprisingly, Lone is incredibly kind about my enthusiasm, and we finish with a light discussion about my time at Oxford. It’s clear Lone holds the university in high regard, just as it’s clear her considered, self-deprecating way of talking masks the meticulous, anthropological filmmaking gaze that makes her a modern-day cinematic maestro. Having been privileged with her conversation, I thank her for her time, and wish her a nice evening with her Riot Boys. After all, they ought to know how to party by now; and having worked on such an ambitious project together, I can think of nothing more fitting for them than spending it with the real leader of their pack.



The Riot Club is released Friday 19th September. 

All images courtesy of UMI. 



The Riot Club: a dangerous fable of youth in revolt



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.

Formal Hall - The Riot Club


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.


Max Irons - Blood


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. 

The Oxford Student

Oxford's Newspaper since 1991