Film Review: The Riot Club (2014)

“I’m afraid you’re not really the right sort of chap”

Laura Wade’s Posh took the Royal Court by storm in 2010 and then the West End in 2012 with a slightly amended version, each time slipping quite easily into the contemporary political narrative with its skewering of a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club, an elite Oxford student dining club that has boasted the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson in its ranks. Wade’s intimation is clear, that the reckless and thoughtless behaviour of these men as students is symptomatic of their charmed future political careers as a whole and enclosed in the claustrophobic dining room of a gastropub that they proceed to thoroughly trash, the play had a horrendously compelling energy to it.

Wade has adapted her own play here into The Riot Club  and through the determined effort to make it work on screen, it has become quite the different beast. Personally, I wasn’t too keen on it, the changes detracting from the strengths of the story as I saw them, and the realities of making – and casting – a feature film have altered the whole underlying theme. A cast headed by model-handsome men (Sam Claflin, Douglas Booth, Sam Reid, Max Irons etc), most of whom get to ‘learn a lesson’ by the end, takes away from the vileness of their behaviour – it almost feels like director Lone Scherfig is letting them get away with it without ever really showing us the true ugliness of their political and personal prejudices.

Part of this comes from a change in the main focus away from the group as a whole and onto the two newest recruits – Irons’ Miles and Claflin’s Alistair – who are diametrically opposed in most respects. So we see the japes of their initiation ceremonies, and the start of a promising relationship for Miles with working-class Huddersfield girl Lauren (another new innovation from Wade) who is appealingly played by Holliday Granger. So that by the time we reach the climactic dinner party, basically two-thirds of the way in, much of the impact has been deliberately blunted – the key scene with Natalie Dormer’s working girl Charlie passes by too quickly, Lauren’s arrival at the dinner replaces much of Jessica Brown Findlay’s role as the put-upon waitress thereby diluting both parts.

And that goes for the whole film. For me, expanding the world of the play to encompass a whole raft of new characters and beautifully shot vistas of Oxford’s architecture has that same effect, of lessening what I found most effective about the play and so it was hard not to feel a little disappointed with it in the end. It isn’t bad by any stretch – Irons is strong as the conflicted Miles, Claflin nails the chilling insouciance of a Tory leader in the making, and there’s good work too from Sam Reid and Matthew Beard amongst others in the club. I’d still recommend tracking down a production of the play rather than renting the film though – and next month conveniently sees one start in Nottingham before going onto Salisbury.

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