The Riot Club may be flawed, but it perfectly highlights our perceptions of the UK’s ruling privileged right now.
“I am sick to fucking death of poor people!” You can imagine these words writ large on Laura Wade’s sensationalist screenplay for Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club, adapted from Wade’s own acidic privilege play, Posh. The line arrives after hours of flowing booze and casually poisonous conversation shared by ten young Oxford elites curdles the uneasy atmosphere into something altogether more sinister. These men and boys are part of the Riot Club, a thinly veiled imitation of the Bullingdon Club, the unofficial Oxford Uni society open exclusively to the cream of the cream that’s long revelled in the kind of debauchery afforded only by obscene wealth.
By drawing comparisons between the Riot Club and the Bullingdon Club, Wade is encouraging us to ask what kind of people are taking the reins of this country
In case there is any doubt that Wade was trying to draw parallels between the Riot Club and the Bullingdon Club, one scene in the screen adaptation sees the Riot Club posing for a group photograph in much the same way that David Cameron, Boris Johnson and pals did for a now-infamous Buller photo circa 1987. The dress is near-identical, and the faces carry the same look of serious self-satisfaction. By drawing a deliberate comparison between the fictional tribe and its real life counterpart, Wade is encouraging us to ask what kind of people are taking the reins of this country.
Cameron, Johnson and George Osborne are all former brethren of the Bullingdon Club – notorious for its fellows wantonly wrecking private property at club events, before paying for damages on the spot, in cash – now residing in prime positions of leadership in the UK. In Scherfig’s film, Rioters are informed by a former club member-turned-Tory MP that, no matter the levels of decadence and destruction they reach, they’re still destined to be future leaders of the country. Before the end of their first club dinner of the term, the ten men will have guzzled the finest wines and spirits like lemonade, assaulted one of the club members’ girlfriends and trashed a pub and beaten its owner half blind.
The film’s bitter depiction of the upper class cheapens the argument somewhat. This highly cynical black comedy is extravagantly OTT, its characters – despite the universally excellent performances – exaggerated into the worst kind of toff stereotypes. None of the Riot Club members are remotely sympathetic, and obviously came forth from the pen of someone sick to fucking death of rich people. Rioter Alistair, played as a brat of barbaric entitlement by Sam Claflin, rants during one of his drunken tirades that Britain’s lower classes actively seek affirmation of their own worst prejudices about the country’s elite. Wade is to some extent guilty of that, and boiling the complex class issues inherent in Britain down to gross simplicities ultimately isn’t going to cut it.
When a UK government can be so openly duplicitous and damaging to its people, can we be all that surprised that a film like this has come into existence?
The Riot Club is, however, a true indicator of the general feeling amongst GB’s lower ranks right now. It may be very nearly so blinded by hate that it almost loses touch with reality, but that The Riot Club’s affluent few so gleefully disregard the majority for the sake of their own satisfaction feels accurately on-point. With stories prevalent in the media of the rich and powerful lying and cheating their way to realising their own agenda, can we blame Wade for being consumed by such rage? When a UK government can be so openly duplicitous and damaging to its people, can we be all that surprised that a film like this has come into existence?
The Riot Club is just a film, though an enjoyable one if you’re fortunate enough not to be one of its targets. But it’s also yet another hint (as if another was needed, after Scotland almost detached itself from the UK forever last week) that not everyone is happy with the way things run in Britain. Instant power by virtue of influential connections and mere birthright is something that shouldn’t still exist in an enlightened age. Cinema often reflects the times we’re living in; The Riot Club is imperfect as drama, and too hyperbolic to be taken all that seriously, but it’s important as a measure of the current ill feeling towards the powers that be. When the perception of those in charge becomes this hateful, it should be clear that something needs to change.
All images: Universal