The Riot Club (directed by Lone Scherfig) is not my favourite film of the decade (although it is definitely in my Top 10) but I believe it is one of the most important films of the decade. Especially when viewed in a double-bill with a film like I, Daniel Blake, it explains so much about British society and how we’ve got to where we are now in the UK. In this essay I discuss the film in the context of other representations of the Bullingdon Club in popular culture and discuss some of the antics Boris Johnson and David Cameron got up to during their time at Oxford University. If you’re British or have a passing interest in British politics, I strongly urge you to watch this essential (and entertaining) film.
2016 is a year which will live in infamy as having far-reaching consequences for Western politics. In June, there was the Brexit vote in the UK and in November, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. There have been few attempts (with varying degrees of success) to address this socio-political moment in American film, although there have been some impressive takes on gentrification and Black Lives Matter, including Blindspotting. In the UK, things have been troubled since 2010, when the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron were voted in to “clean up” the mess of the 2008 crash. This led to years of austerity – crack downs on public services, leading to a huge rise in homelessness and those in need of food banks. Of course, the desire to deflect blame onto refugees and scapegoat immigrants from countries such as Poland has led to Brexit. This increasingly divided society was addressed in 2016’s I, Daniel Blake (directed by Ken Loach) about the frustrations of a disabled man being forced to jump through endless hoops to receive any financial help from the state. At the other end of the scale, there is a film which identifies just exactly where former UK Prime Minister David Cameron and current PM Boris Johnson come from – the breeding ground of Eton School and Oxford University which fosters Britain’s ruling elite and creates the culture of those who have gone on to lead the country. It is one of the most important films of the decade and it is Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club.
Screenwriter Laura Wade adapts her own 2010 play Posh which has almost a single-location, taking place on one night, in real time (apart from a prologue and epilogue). The central event is a dinner for The Riot Club, a secret society made up of a small group of ‘elite’ Oxford University students (but not officially recognized by the university). The Riot Club is a thinly-veiled representation of the Bullingdon Club, of which both David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members (as well as some former Kings). The Bullingdon is said to have started as a Cricket Club in 1780, but gradually the social activities (chiefly the infamous dinners) took over as their main preoccupation. The Bullingdon has featured in various incarnations in literature and television, as well as film. In Evelyn Waugh’s 1928 novel Decline and Fall, it is amusingly known as the Bollinger: “there is a tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been!”
Danish director Lone Scherfig has transitioned from the Dogme 95 school of film-making to making British period films (An Education, Their Finest) and those dealing with middle-and-upper class English characters in more contemporary times (One Day, The Riot Club). As is often the case, a more objective outsider’s viewpoint on a country’s society can be valuable. The combination of two women (Wade and Scherfig) putting the ultimate boy’s club under a microscope and revealing their true natures is something to be relished. The women characters are pivotal in exposing particular weaknesses and the nastiest elements of the club. Wade introduced the character of Lauren (played by Holliday Grainger) into the film in a much more important role (she is only briefly referred to in the play). As well as being a girl – something these boarding school boys have little experience of – she is also Northern and from a state school. She represents everything that certain members of the club fear and despise.
Max Irons plays Miles and Sam Claflin plays Alistair Ryle – two ‘freshers’ who are set up as rivals from the first day when Ryle’s parents demand that Alistair get his older brother Seb’s old room. The amenable Miles agrees to a swap and then shows Ryle up further by being smoother with the girls than he is. Ryle has an inferiority complex because of being in his brother’s shadow, “only” going to Harrow (not Eton) and a chip on his shoulder which is displayed by him “well, actuallying” those he considers inferior (women and poor people). When Ryle is mugged, he is consoled by Harry Villiers (Douglas Booth), who (in the precise and detailed costume design work of Steven Noble) is wearing almost the exact same outfit as Ryle – a ‘uniform’ virtually unchanged since The Sloane Ranger Handbook was published in 1982 (a couple of years before Johnson and Cameron were at Oxford). It consists of Barbour jackets and gilets (in racing green or navy), Oxford shirts, chinos (in cream or khaki) and brown brogues (the Oxford shoe) or loafers. Sloanes are named after Sloane Square in the London borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Princess Diana was the unofficial Patron Saint of the Sloanes. When Johnson and Cameron entered Oxford, there were two “bibles” that their set was influenced by – The Sloane Ranger Handbook (1982) and the television adaptation of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1981). As Johnson’s sister Rachel notes in the Channel 4 docudrama When Boris Met Dave (2009); “it was a time when the dreaming spires and Thatcherism collided, and it was an incredible petri-dish for pushiness and ambition to become a virus that infected a whole generation.” The lives of modern day Sloanes are chronicled in the “structured” reality television series Made in Chelsea, which started in 2011.
The other members of the club are made up of Guy ‘Bell-End’ Bellingfield (Matthew Beard), George (Jack Farthing), Toby aka Tubes (Olly Alexander, from the band Years & Years) and Ed (God’s Own Country’s Josh O’Connor). The Club President James Leighton-Masters is played by Freddie Fox, who like Max Irons, is descended from acting royalty. There is also the older Hugo (Sam Reid) who knew and coveted Miles at Westminster and the super-rich Greek Dimitri (Pride’s Ben Schnetzer). Dimitri is the source of internal snobbery within the club, he is only valued for his enormous wealth – his roll of cash is used to pay people off whenever needed. However, he represents bourgeois new-money and, like the Greek-German Prince Philip, is looked down upon for not being an upper-class Englishman with the proper breeding. It seems that you can send your children to the best English boarding schools, where they will acquire the best cut-glass accents, but if they aren’t titled, they will always be outsiders. Villiers’ house is the only one of the club-members that we see – it is a traditional stately home, which has to be opened to the public to pay for its upkeep. This is one of the reasons why they resent Dimitri so much, their wealth is tied to land and property, whereas he has an endless supply of ready cash. When the boys get drunk and puke up in Dimitri’s brand new “beautiful British car,” he puts the keys through the letterbox of a Charity Shop and just abandons it.
The structure of The Riot Club follows the play in having an extended scene which is the fateful dinner at The Bull’s Head. The film spends 40 minutes introducing the ten club members, their relationships and rivalries and crucially establishing Miles and Lauren’s relationship. It also depicts the initiation and hazing rituals, which will be familiar from American pop culture depictions of fraternities in US colleges. The room trashing initiation is used by the real Bullingdon Club. In When Boris Met Dave, Lloyd Evans explains; “In order to become a member, you had to suffer vandalism and a certain amount of violence. Once you became a member, you then acquired the right to inflict vandalism and a certain amount of violence on other people, often on blameless innocents. But you compensate them, financially. You don’t count the social or the emotional damage you’ve done, you just throw money at them. Which actually, is a further insult because it assumes that the only thing that matters to the victim is the money and the one thing you couldn’t care less about is the money. So, the British ruling elite has this ritual at its heart.” Once the action moves to The Bull’s Head, the film spends 40 minutes depicting the events of the dinner which escalates into completely trashing the place and violently assaulting the landlord. It then has a 30-minute sequence which shows the aftermath, including a ‘council-of-war’ which is beautifully lit and shot in a cloister and the dialogue becomes amusingly militaristic “you don’t leave a man out on the field”. There are internal disputes over who should be blamed and Villiers’ Uncle Jeremy (Tom Hollander) swoops in to clean up the mess.
For those who may view the representation of the club dinner in The Riot Club as grossly exaggerated from the real-life antics of the Bullingdon and other similar societies, the attitude is more important than the actions. Ryle riles up these public school boys into a Lord of the Flies-style frenzy through a rallying speech “I am sick to fucking death of poor people.” Ryle ‘suffers’ perceived humiliations at the hands of Charlie (Natalie Dormer), an escort who refuses to go under the table and ‘service’ all ten of the club members and Lauren, who he summons to the dinner and who also refuses to perform this task. He is most aggrieved by the landlord Chris (Gordon Brown) and his daughter Rachel (Jessica Brown Findlay) and the fact that Chris will take their pay-offs, but keeps the moral high-ground; “there’s going to be no country left for us because of people like him.” Compared to the grievous bodily harm Ryle and the others end up inflicting on Chris, some of the stories that have emerged of real Oxford societies appear tame in comparison, including members of the Bullingdon allegedly throwing a pot plant through a restaurant window during Johnson and Cameron’s time. They still reveal important character traits about the club-members, however. In a neat parallel with how he announced the Brexit vote and then resigned, leaving his fellow Tories to mop up the mess, Cameron apparently scarpered before a small group, including Johnson were arrested. In 2015, an infamous scandal occurred when it was leaked that David Cameron allegedly put an appendage in a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation ceremony for the Piers Gaveston Society. The pig’s head was resting on the lap of a society member at the time and the story was leaked as part of a dispute with Lord Ashcroft (a big Tory donor who fell out with Cameron). When these allegations were made, it was immediately associated with the first episode of Black Mirror (The National Anthem, 2011), in which the Prime Minister has to have sex with a pig on live television in order for a kidnapped princess to be released.
One of the criticisms leveled at The Riot Club was that the casting – of a group of charming, good-looking “hot young things” – and the actions of the characters in the first half of the film glamourises the Bullingdon. I think this is the precise effect that Scherfig is trying to have on her audience. The first half of the film seduces us – we are even perhaps envious of these boys, their hedonism and what they manage to get away with. This makes the brutal attack on the landlord all the more shocking and it is at this point that we can address our own complicity. After all, a large proportion of the population have been seduced by the Bullingdon boys. While the extreme actions of the fictional Riot Club may be hyperbolized, the vitriol Ryle and the others feel towards ‘normal’ people rings true. Johnson, Cameron, George Osborne and many of their contemporaries in politics and the media are fostered in an environment that reinforces them being the elite of society. They come from the ‘top’ schools, go to the ‘top’ universities and get into the ‘top’ exclusive clubs. It’s all about being considered ‘the right sort of chap’, being from the right families and having the right connections, which begin at prep school and last well into adult life – to the tops of their chosen professions. Scherfig and Wade’s The Riot Club exposes exactly what sort of people are running the UK, imposing austerity and other punishing policies on the most vulnerable in society.
The writing is razor-sharp, as are the performances; particularly Sam Claflin as Ryle. Claflin communicates every emotion Ryle goes through almost entirely through incredibly subtle changes in his mouth and how much he is clenching his teeth from one scene to another. The embarrassment because of his parents, shame and inferiority when he is compared with his brother, humiliation at the hands of the muggers, the landlord, Miles and Lauren. All of this resentment is then transformed into a smug satisfaction when his seething sermonizing rallies the club into action, but is quickly followed by manipulation and scheming to try and get out of trouble. And then there is the last triumphant smile when he realizes that not only will he get off scott-free, but he will be rewarded for his actions at the club dinner. The final shot of the film really is a microcosm of British society, especially when viewed in direct comparison with something like I, Daniel Blake. There will be no consequences for a man like Ryle, the boys club will rally and protect their own. As it says at the start of Waugh’s Decline and Fall; “that’s the public school system all over. They may kick you out, but they never let you down.”