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. 


Students respond to the 50 Shades of Grey trailer

The 50 Shades of Grey trailer made waves online upon release, amassing more than a 100 million views in its first week.



Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson star in the film adaptation of the best-selling novels by E.L. James about a powerful CEO and a college student’s BDSM relationship. The OxStu asked for student’s responses to the trailer. Here’s what we found out:

Kenny Dada

50 Shades of Grey is finally here! Well, the trailer is (the film itself isn’t out until Valentine’s Day 2015. Soz, Mr Grey devotees). As expected, the trailer teased the, er, interesting aspects that made the trilogy so infamous with elevator kisses, bedroom and shirtless shots, lingering stares between the leads, and some under-the-table action. Saucy stuff. Not expected was my mother announcing that she now wants to read the novels after watching the trailer. Disturbing.

Nassia Williamson

As a repenting reader of fan fiction, seeing Master of the Universe (hoho, Fifty’s AU precursor) come real is a staggering fact. Its progress from Twific canon to viral mummy porn to, finally, the big screen stirs a mixture of disbelief and – like a train wreck – outright horror. I really can’t wait.

Ashley Fisher

The golden rule is this: the higher the rating, the lower the box office income. So the producers may push for an R-rating. If so, the film won’t contain any of the content that everyone wants. Yet they ought to take the risk of an NC-17 rating, as the film is fairly low budget ($40m) and the fan-base is large and well established.

Sam Joyce

The focus on romance over sex and the studio rom-com cinematography suggest Universal are aiming for a broader audience than I imagined. However, the combination of the hot guy from Marie Antoinette, Beyonce covering her own song and gloriously knowing dialogue such as “I exercise control in all things”/“that sounds incredibly boring,” have me praying for a camp fiasco on a scale not seen since Lindsay Lohan’s Lifetime biopic of Elizabeth Taylor. I’m sold.

Tom Bannatyne

I’ve always viewed 50 Shades of Grey in the same way as I would a dead animal – with a morbid fascination. The trailer only adds to this. From its slowed down Beyonce track to its silly dialogue to its Valentine’s Day release date, it is cringe-inducing in the extreme, but it still has an undeniable appeal. It’s not clever, or sexy, or particularly dramatic, but there is enough teasing to make it not entirely rubbish.


Laura Hartley

Having read the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy I have to say that I was rather disappointed by the film trailer. I can’t really pinpoint what it is exactly but all I’m feeling is a whole load of ‘but … no’ when watching it. There’s no way it can be as sexy as the books because that would basically be porn, so surely it can only disappoint? That soundtrack though…

Harriet Fry

My initial reaction was to enjoy Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’, but also to realise that the plot is not as ground-breaking as it is made out to be. From the trailer, the characters seem like stereotypes: we have the demure, ostensibly uninteresting woman and the would-be dashing man who sweeps her off her feet. I wonder what kind of message this sends out about relationships today- should they really be characterised by such a power imbalance?

James Aldred

Almost as influential as the release of the book itself, the trailer has already nearly doubled one online retailer’s sales of sex toys. But in amongst the excitement, few have been willing to ask perhaps the most important question: doesn’t it just look a bit shit? The production looks predictably slick but dull, and shows a bumbling, cardigan-wearing woman who can only truly be liberated by a masculine cliché. What year is it again?

Megan Mary Thomas

The book was heralded as being outrageous and even revolutionary, but the trailer trots out the worn cliché; ‘there’s really not much to know about me’ girl meets ‘intense, smart, intimidating’ guy who ‘enlightens’ her. A really helpful tool for teaching our generation about the efficiency of intimidation as a means to consent. Does this film liberate women to talk about sex or does it glamourize oppression? Emmeline Pankhurst would be proud of how far we’ve come.

Freya Judd

Is this a sexually liberating franchise, reigniting women’s interests in the kinkier sides of sex, or does it depict an unhealthy example of BDSM? Unfortunately, an equally heated debate is the argument over whether Jamie Dornan has enough chisel in his cheekbones and charisma in his stares to portray Christian Grey. I say I’ll be watching 50 Shades ironically, but I can’t pretend I’m not hoping that Dornan will magically be standing behind me in the popcorn queue.



Dangerous Boys

In September, The Riot Club - an adaptation of Laura Wade’s controversial Royal Court hit stage play, Posh - will make its way into cinemas… and fear will strike the hearts of those in power accordingly.

All right, so hyperbole aside, it’s easy to see why this project has been causing a stir since its inception; tinged with more than just a whiff of controversy, it is based loosely on the historically-destructive antics of an Oxford University drinking society, The Bullingdon Club (for those who missed the furor caused several years ago, when antics of past members were exposed, this club has counted amongst its ranks several notable members of our current cabinet, including David Cameron and Boris Johnson). The play charts the descent into violent chaos of a group of select Oxford students – privileged, blue-blooded or nouveaux riche, ex-public school, white, male – attending one of their illicit termly dinners.

It has always found itself pinned to its political potential by those who (not unreasonably) have seen it as a theatrical flag-wave for the anti-Tory cause. Certainly with the British Film Institute committing a chunk of funding to the film last year, in the wake of budget slashes induced by government cuts, suggestions that the film is hugely driven towards generating an anti-Conservative rhetoric do have legs to stand on. The Guardian reported as early as last August that MPs such as Lee Scott (Illford North) had told The Mail they questioned the film’s motives. And, considering that it is slated for release ahead of the next General Election campaign season, one could be forgiven for thinking that the film chimes far too easily with other attempts to discredit parliamentary bids by certain prominent politicians – whose historical anecdotes of debauched chaos are somewhat legendary – to be entirely innocent of a political agenda.

And yet, despite the fact all of these discussions are testament to the way films can have an impact beyond the cinema auditorium, they are also testament to something else: to how, recently more than ever, we always seem to be in favour of discussing the political and social context of a film above all else. Discussing film as propaganda or social commentary is useful – but it’s also reductive. Film is fiction, and The Riot Club, like other films, deserves to be opened up to scrutiny beyond its place amongst the battleground of Westminster politics or the education debate. It also has its wider applications. Successful or not (and we can’t yet judge, since we’re awaiting release), if the original play is anything to go by, Wade and Scherfig have embarked upon a project that is at least, conceptually, unique and fascinating: they have taken as their central theme the effects of tribalism amongst a group of young people, and they have transcribed that theme onto a group we hardly ever see observed – the privileged.

Because the Riot Boys are – no matter how much we dress them up in £3000 tailcoats and cut-glass vowels – a gang. They operate under the ideology of an in-group, and their actions are governed accordingly. If this film runs to 110 minutes, then those are 110 minutes spent visualising and narrating a fictitious example of young people living their lives within the safety and stricture of a pack mentality. Having tapped into one of the most successful motifs of dramatic conflict in cinematic history (after all, gang narratives have insinuated themselves into the “Top 100” lists of films, both classic and cult, for decades: where would cinema be without The Godfather or Reservoir Dogs?), Wade and Scherfig have re-imagined what life in a gang is like – but amongst the kind of people we often assume already have it all.

And it is a successful motif, of course, because it is important. Stripped of its contextual dressing – a dressing nicely rendered by Barbour jackets and RP accents, and the quintessential charisma of Brit boy actors such as Max Irons, Sam Clafin and Douglas Booth, gathered behind the locked door of the private dining room where glass shatters freely and views on those “f*cking poor people” are expressed –  the project interrogates tribalism in a way that could apply to any gang, regardless of background: it questions how within an in-group situation, personal morality is subsumed by group psychology; how individuals tailor their own ideas and beliefs to suit the agenda of their overarching community; how, when threatened, groups can and often will target and expel their weakest member – with potentially devastating consequences for that individual – so that the group as a whole can survive otherwise unscathed. It is an exposé of the hypocrisy inherent to many social groups: one where the communal ethos bespeaks common ground, yet will internally stratify itself; of how a pack mentality validates its existence by perpetuating a distinction between “us” and “them”. A question arises then: why are we so concerned about the effects of this film as propaganda in a way we never are when Scorsese or Tarantino or Besson take on a project that represents the social world of Italian American mob bosses or the Columbian drugs trade?

One suspects it is because we expect these social worlds and their conflicts on our screen. We are used to them. And more than that, there is a deeper psychology at work under the surface – one which permits us to sympathise with the aspirational crooks of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) or the chummy thugs played by Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), even as they shock us with their criminal and violent behaviour. These aren’t, after all, folks at the top – they’re folks doing their best to getto the top, even while they’re oppressed by the powerful antagonistic forces (the police, mobster overlords, their communities) doing their best to stop them. In most rollickingly successful gang films – of which there are plenty – success is assured only by the collaboration of the group. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin became George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the Ocean’s Eleven films, and audiences loved the camaraderie between the protagonists and the rest of their band of thieves as much in the 21st century as they did in the 1960s. Menhaj Hudo’s fifteen-year-old female hoods in Kidulthood (2006), led by Stephanie Di Rubbio’s bully Shaneek, represented what it meant to be young, disillusioned, and huddled together in a rabble of angry kids in the West London of 2002. It is when internal stratification arises, as it inevitably always does – when leadership and underdog roles are established – that gangs begin to deteriorate, hemmed in within their own fortress of cult-like commitment to one another.

In other words, fiction stumbled onto its A-game when it realised that the concept of loyalty to one’s constructed social circle is something that hardly ever fails to resonate with its audience. The context surrounding the moral of the fable is pretty irrelevant to its necessity to film. Audiences don’t just go to the cinema looking for a scapegoat; they go to find something they can understand, discovering it within a world they can otherwise never access. We may be unwilling to admit Riot Boys, with their bottles of Bollinger and the world at their feet, to the club (if you’ll pardon the pun) – but they still have every right to be there. Whereas most gang narratives centre around an exclusive in-group that perceives injustices from the perspective of an underclass, the tragedies of The Riot Club stem from the isolation felt by members of an exclusive overclass. But the results are similar enough. Privilege, power and prestige – for one group at the expense of another – are articulated as both the right and the aspiration of these characters, in much the same way that they are for Robert de Niro and James Woods in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), or Stephen Graham and his ilk in This is England (2006). They tear them apart in the same way.Those fencing swords and tailcoats are the same kind of armour as sharp Italian tailoring or Crombie overcoats.

We can feel sorry for these boys, in a way we perhaps otherwise find difficult when viewing their grown-up, real-life counterparts through the lens of media reaction to another budget cut or Cabinet cover-up. These are young men, banded together by a dual code of shared identity and, underneath it all, their own fear of outsiders – of the people who have lived their lives in a different way, by a different moral code, accepting a hierarchy or a rule of deference that does not mesh well with theirs. When called upon to justify their actions and beliefs – ones they know people outside of their circle will never understand – they give nothing at all, instead retreating into one another, and a safety mechanism of cruelty. And, as becomes clearer and clearer throughout the script, their tribalism stems from individual insecurities, and a pervading sense of loneliness – where else can they ever find a love they understand but with their boys?

So in taking us away from the groups we are so used to seeing represented by the gang genre – the mafia, the street hoods, the ethnic minorities, the working class in revolt – and giving us the unexpected, The Riot Club is refreshing a stifled and tired genre, opening it up to the possibility of working beyond its given stereotypes. If the mid-to-late 20th century was dominated by the Italian-American conflicts and their auteurs, and British filmmaking responded with the gritty realism of street hood culture in the early 2000s, then perhaps The Riot Club is tentatively marking a key turning point in film history: one that will look at gang culture in the least expected places. Wade herself hasn’t denied the spectre of influence that is the erudite posh boy, strolling the corridors of power, in her play. In August’s UK edition of Vogue she conceded that – despite their limited presence in the university world – “Riot boys aren’t going away”; but for audiences to concentrate solely on its political effects, and exclude its wider applications within the world of film as a result, is to limit the exciting new dialogue The Riot Club can potentially ignite.



Why Alex Darby’s latest project is proof that student film cannot be ignored

‘Festivals like to see a project rather than a product’, explains Owen Donovan, distribution manager for Waterbird | Catkins, as he steps off camera after filming a quick rave scene, and sits down with me at a table in The Cellar. Owen never expected to be in the final film, he had originally been overseeing the marketing and distribution of the two films, yet had been roped in to fill out the numbers for that particular shot.

I’d been invited down to the usually sweaty and packed club venue at 3 in the afternoon to watch some of the filming for two new student film projects, (the first, Catkins, and the second, Waterbird) both of them written and directed by Alexander Darby. If you are unfamiliar with Alex’s projects, go onto his Vimeo (available at where you can see some of his fantastic work including a preview for The Wishing Horse, a film showing at a number of film festivals at the moment.

Darby decided to shoot both films together to, in effect, allow the project to work in two parts that complimented and augmented one another. Both have remarkably different story lines and themes – Catkins was largely set in an expansive, luscious countryside setting, whereas Waterbird, a film concentrating on the tensions of early adulthood, often has a lot more claustrophobic settings – as seen at The Cellar and later, when the team planned to do a night shoot in the Westgate Car Park. The two contrasting themes in the single project should provide an impressive result for viewers.

What was most striking about the project was how meticulously planned and flawlessly organised it was – even the rave scene, as Owen explains, was carefully orchestrated with specific entrances and exits done at regulated intervals. The day before, I was told, the crew had been out on the river with a boat specifically designed to hold the bulky camera; no expense was spared when it came to the visual quality of the eventual product.

Watching the few takes that I saw, it became clear that a strong working dynamic had emerged between the cast and crew – whenever a take didn’t feel right in Alex’s eyes or a boom mic may have poked into the shot, it was simply re-done without hesitation from anyone. It was this professionalism that clearly created the highest quality in student production.

Having come from a predominantly theatre-based dimension, watching this felt like a surreal experience to me, and it was clear that having a strong creative drive from Alex himself was keeping everyone focussed and patient.

I was lucky enough to be shown some of the footage from the day before (a relatively simple test shot of a jogger in the rain) and the results were incredible when slowed down – droplets of rain were almost visible across what may otherwise have been a dreary riverbank. It was small samples like that that ultimately make the end product all the more exciting.

Though the shoot is now finished, the work for Alex is far from over. Now he has to move to the editing stage (this would last through August apparently) and then the distribution and promotion of the project could begin, as had happened with Alex’s previous films including The Wishing Horse. Even with Catkins and Waterbird fully shot, there is no rest for the director and the rest of his crew, with Alex having recently been involved with the making of the trailer for The Pillowman (on at the Oxford Playhouse next term) and the directing of the video for the comedy song written by David Meredith and Will Hislop of the Oxford Revue (available here:

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