The Riot Club

[contains spoilers]

The Riot Club, directed by Lone Scherfig, is a brutal examination of class and power adapted by Laura Wade from her play Posh. The plot centres around the young male members of an exclusive dining club at Oxford University, believed by many to be based on the Bullingdon Club, which boasts illustrious alumni such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, among others.

The film, released in 2014, didn’t run in Australian cinemas. A pity, as it would have been timely – coinciding with a period when Australian academic institutions were embroiled in numerous sex scandals (the Australian Defence Force Academy, the University of Western Australia, Sydney University’s St John’s College), culminating in the 2017 release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on sexual assault at universities.

The Riot Club is named after a Lord Ryot from the 1800s whose debauchery was “legendary.” It is a society for whom membership depends on an aristocratic lineage via exclusive schools such as Eton and Westminster. Club members constantly refer to themselves as the “best and brightest” and there is an unquestioned expectation that one day they will all be sitting behind some very important desks. But the bonds holding the boys together are thin. They are constantly humiliating each other- you have to withstand a level of degradation to be admitted- and it doesn’t take much for them to turn on each other.

The plot revolves around the recruitment of two new members to the Club (Miles, played by Max Irons, and Alistair, played by Sam Claflin), and their annual dinner, the aim of which is to become as drunk and destructive as possible. The evening culminates in the brutal assault of the owner of the pub where their dinner takes place, leaving the boys scrambling for cover in the wake of the police investigation. The question then becomes which boy will take it for the team; they start to debate who to scapegoat. There is a surprising (albeit superficial) spirit of utilitarianism about this, with the downfall of one and the saviour of nine seen as worth pursuing.

Club members are intent on making their presence felt and constantly mark their territory by leaving traces of themselves wherever they go. A lot of the time this is in the form of bodily fluids, but other times it is through cash- they are constantly able to pay their way out of punishment. They destroy other diners’ evenings through their rowdiness, leaving the pub owner, Michael, worried about his business. While he worries about paying off his daughter’s tuition fees, in his private dining room Riot Club members offer one of the boys’ girlfriends the equivalent of three years’ tuition fees in return for sexual favours. Michael wants to foster a sense of community and maintain goodwill with his customers; the boys are every man for themselves, and resent people such as Michael trying to make a name from themselves when they come from “nothing.”

Ironically, the boys’ habit of leaving their mark becomes their downfall. A few days following the incident, Alistair is arrested after his DNA is found on Michael’s body. But initially they are all arrested, making for one of the most emotive scenes of the film. The devastation in the boys’ faces is palpable as they are swabbed for forensic evidence, but I suspect it is the dawning realisation that they might not be able to pay their way out of the mess that is behind their distress, and the thought of a future life of entitlement and power slipping through their fingers. Ultimately even this possibility is not discounted; Alistair’s uncle, an MP and former Club member, arranges a high-powered lawyer (himself an ex-Member) for Alastair. When the Club members are out on bail, the worst possible consequence they can foresee is that they will be sent down. Never mind that a man nearly died simply for standing his ground against their grotesque behaviour and inflated sense of selves.

I felt very unwell after watching this film. I put my response down to its devastating portrayal of the human cost of unfettered privilege, and the maintenance of power through humiliation. Michael looks after his staff. He supports one of the chefs to spend time with his infant daughter, and tells them to help themselves to a pint after their shift. His life changes the night the Riot Club walks through the door. The pub is called The Bull’s Head; at the end of the night his china bulls and plates are smashed and other diners have left in disgust, leaving him with literally nothing to his name, clinging to life in a hospital bed.

The female characters are strong. Lauren (Holliday Grainger), Max’s girlfriend, doesn’t come from privilege and doesn’t hesitate to push back against the Club’s misogyny. Rachel, the waitress (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is Michael’s daughter, wants to take a more hard-line approach to the boys than her father. And Charlie, (Natalie Dormer) a sex worker who is hired by one of the boys for the whole ten of them refuses to engage and stands up against their insults.

Obviously having strong female characters is positive. However, in this case, I feel slightly conflicted, because the representation of sexism as wholly perpetuated by this bastion of privileged young white men undercuts the complexity of contemporary misogyny. Sure, they have a lot to answer for, but as I have written previously on this blog, the rise of raunch culture means women today are complicit in their own degradation. This side of university life is pervasive, and its absence in the film feels unrealistic to me, as someone who had to negotiate raunch culture as a student in the late 2000s. But then again I did not go to Oxford, and it is the boys’ extreme privilege that precludes a more nuanced exploration of gendered power relations.

Raunch culture aside, I can see the dramatic rationale for leaving female characters out of the picture. The boys’ attitudes towards women are blatantly disgusting, viewing all females as little more than chattel. The reduction of their sexual experiences to just another commodity they can purchase aligns with their broader mentality of buying influence. Ultimately, however, the film doesn’t fall on its sword due to this plot device, because the examination of class conflict is so confrontational and thought-provoking.

One of the stand-out aspects of the film’s aesthetics is its blue hue. Oxford’s stone buildings seem more grey than their famous yellow. The sun rarely shines. It is as though the grubby underside of university life has rather taken the sheen off the town’s renowned architecture and the promise of a hallowed, almost spiritual, experience that admittance to that university is commonly thought to entail.

Perhaps those who view the film will always see Oxford in a different light afterwards.