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22 September 2014

"Being at Oxford, It's Like Being Invited to 100 Parties at Once"

When Lone Scherfig's new film The Riot Club opens, it's all very Brideshead Revisited, as two new first-year students arrive for their first day at Oxford University. Alistair (Sam Clafin) shows up with his pushy parents who try to bully the college porters into giving him the room his older brother occupied previously — a fancy suite in the college's honey-stoned central quad — rather than the "rabbit hutch" in one of the college's newer buildings to which he has been assigned. The porters protest but the room's intended inhabitant, Miles (Max Irons), agrees to switch. The Brideshead analogy soon falls away because both Alistair and Miles are posh. So are all the male students in Laura Wade's screenplay, which she adapted from her acclaimed stage play, Posh.

Alistair and Miles soon fall into a bitter rivalry, although it isn't made clear exactly why: possibly because the latter went to Westminster not Harrow, possibly because of Miles's burgeoning relationship with Lauren (Holliday Grainger) — northern and definitely not posh — and possibly because Alistair is something of a sociopath. Before too long, both boys are tapped to join the Riot Club, a Bullingdon Club-like society with centuries of history and famous for its exclusivity and debauchery. The club has always had exactly ten members, and Alistair and Miles complete the equation. To signify their entry into the club, the other Riot Club members thoroughly trash the rooms of the two new initiates. Miles is slightly hesitant (because he's a Nice, Thoughtful, Liberal Posh Guy, OK?), especially when Lauren makes it clear that she is far from impressed, but he loves being a part of the club and feeling special.

Everything comes to a head at the Riot Club's annual dinner, which takes place in a sleepy village pub several counties away from Oxford; previous Riot Club events have been so destructive and, well, awful that finding a venue proved tricky and, for obvious reasons, they booked their private room under the pretence of being the Young Entrepreneurs Club. The pub's owner, Michael (Michael Jibson), his daughter Rachel (Jessica Brown Findlay), and the other staff members work hard to try to ensure that the boys have a good time — at the expense of the pub's regular clientèle, who start to complain about the noise and the slow service.

Soon, though, it becomes clear that this isn't going to be just your average display of drunken disorderliness, and the hedonism, the violence and the sense of entitlement spiral rapidly out of control. The dinner is The Riot Club's centrepiece — and indeed, Posh focuses only on the events of that night — and it's a brilliant, if scary, set piece. Although the ensemble cast, which also includes Sam Reid and the very busy Ben Schnetzer (last seen in Pride), put in good performances, it is Clafin who really shines as the brooding, unlikeable and slightly unhinged Alistair. I always like watching Max Irons, but the character of Miles felt rather more wishy-washy than the complexity I assume Scherfig was aiming for.

The Riot Club was entertaining enough and pretty hard to watch at times, but by the end, I'm not sure that it added up to very much. The politics and the bite of the play seemed to have been cut, leaving in its place some rather caricatured tales of spoiled rich boys behaving badly, which reminded me at times of the ridiculous and short-lived TV show Trinity. I think the film suffered because it is neither tongue-in-cheek enough to succeed at camp, OTT satire nor serious enough to make interesting social or political points — such as how the power and influence that the members of the real-life version of the Riot Club have gone on to have. If you're interested in a behind-the-scenes-with-the-Oxbridge-elite story, I would recommend Christopher Yates's novel Black Chalk, which is less stereotypical, more original and much scarier.

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