Boasting some prominent names in the young British acting industry today such as Max Irons, Douglas Booth, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, and Natalie Dormer, The Riot Club opens somewhat reminiscent of the classic film, Dead Poets Society. However, it soon becomes evident that there is a much more perverse foundation of the all-male secret club, entitled the Riot Club. The Club has existed through generations of the upper class school’s alumni with members who have the superior mindset that money can buy anything.
Set in the prestigious Oxford University in England where many members of aristocratic families have been educated and based on a true story, The Riot Club centres on two students in their first year of university, Alistair (Claflin) and Miles (Irons). Both young men have connections to aristocracy in their backgrounds, and, after hearing about the exclusive and prestigious Riot Club, become tempted to join the ranks. Although recognised as a dining club, stripped down the Riot Club is a male only drinking club with elite membership and a history of reckless, hedonistic and destructive behaviour, to the point that they have been banned from holding their dinners anywhere in Oxford town.
Miles and Alistair are pitted against each other in a series of risky fraternity-type challenges, all thoroughly spurned by copious amounts of alcohol. Alistair has the typical elitist and snooty attitude with political aspirations, determined to secure what he believes is his rightful place in the Club. Miles is a much more grounded and down-to-earth character determined to focus on his studies, and strikes up a budding romance with Lauren (Grainger), a fellow classmate from a less wealthy and less privileged background. Miles finds himself lured to the shine of the Riot Club more through peer-pressure than desire for exclusivity. Both men succeed in their initiations and are admitted to the folds of the Club.
Their first gathering with the club culminates in heavy drinking and drug use, and the increasingly intoxicated members become raucous, reckless and aggressive which leads to a vicious attack of the pub’s owner which leaves Miles’ in a precarious situation.
Many films set in Britain address the historically prominent class system; upper class versus lower class, aristocracy versus working class, and the Riot Club is no exception. It also encompasses the old fashioned gender roles, by excluding females and viewing them as mere objects to be used for their own pleasure. Upper class entitlement tinged with the money can buy anything attitude is the prominent theme of this film. The setting was stunning with the backdrop of Oxford University, and it had the simplistic grace often present in British film and television, which can take a delicate mix of fantastic actors, simple plot, and stunning scenery to achieve filmographic masterpieces.
However, I found my appreciation for the actors in the roles far outweighed my enjoyment of the movie as a whole. The performances were captivating and the scene-setting of the Riot Club and its backstory drew me in from the get-go. I felt on the edge of my seat… and then like someone pushed me off it so I banged my nose on the well-worn carpet.
The first half of the film was steady-paced and kept me intrigued about what would come next. The story was built succinctly, and peaked with a shocking climax that had my heart in my throat. But then it unfortunately began to wane.
Once the film reached the wake of the dinner, it felt like the pace became lax and the tying up of the story was too bland after so much work to build it in the first half of the film. It almost had the feeling that too much of the third act ended up on the cutting room floor, and my overall enjoyment of the film was affected by it. What had the makings of an interesting story felt tarnished by the lack of balance between the introduction and the conclusion. I wanted to witness more of the aftermath and the impact of the incident on the characters, not just be handed a piecemeal outcome.
Although it was, perhaps, the writers’ intention to leave the film open-ended and make a viewer mull over it, a tool that would intrigue many viewers, it was very much a, “Is that it?” moment by the time I reached the end and was left watching the credits roll needing more. Without Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons, I’m afraid it wouldn’t have been a movie I went out of my way to watch. There was a lot of graphic and raw violence, aggression, suggestions of gang rape, and gritty camera angles that captured the mood of the climactic scene.
Overall, I give The Riot Club three stars, predominantly based on Irons, Booth, and Claflin’s intense performances and delivery of the three main characters of the Club through to a somewhat lacklustre conclusion to the film.