September 8, 2014

Toronto Film Review: ‘The Riot Club’

Peter Debruge / Variety

‘An Education’ director Lone Scherfig offers another tough life lesson, this one exposing the gross misconduct within an Oxford private dining society.

At Oxford, there are classes you take and classes you are born into, and Lone Scherfig’s “The Riot Club,” adapted from Laura Wade’s play “Posh,” is concerned only with the latter — specifically, a group of 10 elite students who went to England’s top schools, descend from the richest families and carry the country’s best blood. It’s enough to make anyone else’s blood boil, which is the deliciously masochistic pleasure auds can expect from watching these pretty, privileged young men — the entitled British cousins of what Tom Wolfe called “Masters of the Universe” — band together and misbehave.

Like her 2009 feature, “An Education,” Scherfig’s latest deals with lessons that can’t be learned in classrooms, but only by narrowly surviving certain life mistakes. Here, it’s two first-year male students, rather than a naive young woman, being seduced and corrupted by a system their grandparents assembled. Much is made about legacy, lineage and the carrying on of certain traditions, though the parental pressure never seems a burden here, the way it is in “Dead Poets Society” and other American pics, where more is made of personal independence.

In the rarefied bubble of British private societies, all men are not created equal. Some — like Alistair (Sam Claflin, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”), kid brother of a former Riot Club president — are born inherently better than others. Others, unfairly privileged with charisma and looks, “have it in them to be a fuckin’ legend.” The latter describes the more middle-class Miles (“The Host’s” Max Irons), who attracts the attention of the Riot Club’s resident gay member, earning a nomination to join the ultra-exclusive group that way.

Like a poncier version of American fraternities, the group hazes its invitation-only pledges, making for a rowdy first stretch. The pic trades in both the fantasy and nightmarish aspects of university social worlds where exclusivity is the draw — as seen in everything from “The Skulls” to “The Social Network,” and shot here in a similar elegant style of cool blues, velvet coats and wood paneling. We naturally crave entree into enclaves we can’t necessarily access ourselves, just as it’s only normal to want to see the egos at the top brought to their knees, and Scherfig offers both to audiences craving scandal as well as smarts (meaning, it could potentially play to teens and arthouse crowds).

In Wade’s script, the fictional Riot Club was named for its founding hedonist, seen in saucy flashback, rather than the group’s general spirit of misbehavior, although the line between the two is razor-thin. After Lord Riot was murdered for seducing a professor’s wife, his peers established a private dining society in his honor, planning an annual meal in which the tradition was to indulge as extravagantly as possible before tearing apart the unlucky establishment they’d hired out for the purpose, fully planning to pay for the damages when they were done.

During the initiation segment of the film, Scherfig relies on Miles as her relatable audience proxy — less entitled and a bit more mature than his spoiled cohorts — though by the end, most people would be happy to see the whole group disbanded. Having gotten some of his oats-sowing out of the way already, Miles is evidently ready to handle a more respectable relationship with “bootstrappy” g.f. Lauren (Holliday Grainger). The other members find nothing odd about sharing an escort between them (though the escort has other plans, resulting in one of the rare scenes where a character manages to avoid the humiliation the group has planned for her).

“Hasn’t anyone noticed how massively homoerotic this is?” asks Lauren, observing how one of the school’s sports teams behaves in a local bar, though she might as well be speaking about the entire U.K. educational system, where — if the film can be taken as any sort of indication — boarding-school boys can hardly keep their testosterone to themselves. That attitude sparks genuine concern for any of the female characters, whom these lads routinely objectify, viewing them as just another commodity. The same goes for their freedom when things go seriously over the line. A well-placed Riot Club alum (Tom Hollander) affectionately refers to such incidents as “scrapes,” regaling the boys with stories from his day, which are nothing compared with the trouble in store here — effective, though clearly rigged to prove the movie’s pre-existing view of such orgs.

Brits might object to such an enraging portrayal, which veers between salacious and cynical, though Scherfig’s unique perspective is just one more reason she was such a smart choice to handle this material. Owing to both her Danish background and her gender, Scherfig approaches the milieu with shrewd anthropological wit, amplifying Wade’s research with her own keen outsider insights — this on top of an expert grasp of tension and tone as the club’s initial allure turns to anxiety and disgust. So these model-beautiful monsters think they’re better than everyone else? Let’s see how they like having their class dismissed.