If The Riot Club was to be described using only one word, it would have to be flaccid. The premise of the film, a group of privileged students at Oxford causing havoc in a country pub, implies that we might expect a scathing indictment on the ‘Bullingdon Club’ and its pervasive influence at Number 10 or simply a criticism of the privilege afforded to those with money and status in modern Britain. In lieu of these expectations what we are confronted with is less a Loach-esque piece of social commentary but rather a middling drama that takes an interesting premise and does nothing with it.
Based on the play Posh by Laura Wade, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, its stage roots are clearly evident in the final product, with a large portion of the running time taking place in one room. This proves to be somewhat of a weakness, as the writing and direction feels far more confident and lively during this period and the scenes that bookend it feel bland and even pointless at times. Rather than use the opportunity to expand on the source material to give the characters greater depth or explore the class issues further, they feel wasted and poorly judged.
One might argue that the greatest fault lies with director Lone Sherfig. Having achieved critical success with 2009’s An Education, Sherfig has cut her teeth in largely romantic comedies, a background that is apparently evident here. A sizeable amount of screen time is afforded to the relationship between Miles (Irons) and Lauren (Grainger), and despite the directors best intentions this relationship never truly pays off and proves only to be a fleeting distraction from the narrative.
The cast is populated with a host of young handsome but vanilla British actors, and although none of them are truly bad, Sam Claflin as the despicable Alastair Ryle was the standout, in all they fail to make a lasting impression. The most memorable performance would have to go to Tom Hollander as former member Jeremy who conveys the subtle elitism perfectly without seeming like a caricature in such a short space of time.
The Riot Club is not without its virtues. Despite issues with its direction, the character’s dialogue was a joy. The form of posh banter that they employ is as ludicrous as it is funny and goes some way to remind you that these are just kids at university, albeit with way too much money and egos the size of a country manor. The pacing is well judged too, the film skips along in a breezy 100 minutes, although the last act does drag a little bit.
More than anything, The Riot Club just feels like a wasted opportunity. The timing for a film of this nature is perfect and in the hands of a more capable director, or at least one who is more versed in the social issues that the source material references, this could have been incendiary and created a talking point that started a serious discussion about the relationship between class and politics that exists in this country. Unfortunately what we are offered is a wet and unambitious mess that has substituted politics for teenage angst. There is real talent on display from the rising actors and more so in writer Laura Wade, and although this may be a misstep, there is certainly reason to believe that there is more to come in the future from those involved.