Having never visited Oxford, one of the world’s most prestigious universities exists only as figment of my imagination. In my mind’s eye, I see bespectacled dons in flowing robes strolling across a fabled campus, beacons of erudition and discernment.
Like all fantasies, mine probably is way off base. And if I had any doubts about that, they were dispelled by director Lone Scherfig’s The Riot Club, a big-screen adaptation of a Laura Wade play called Posh.
R for language, disturbing and violent behavior, sexual content, nudity and drug use
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
So what kind of place is the Oxford of Scherfig’s movie?
Scherfig narrows her focus until she sees Oxford as a brutally uneven playing field that helps breed a class of privileged Englishmen whose money and/or blood lines establish them as men for whom ordinary rules don’t apply.
Members of this detestable aristocracy have benefited from years of expensive education, learning — among other things — how to use money to cover their callous misdeeds.
These upper-class twits seem to believe that their lives have value way beyond those who dwell “beneath” them.
Moreover they know that someday soon, they’ll be sitting behind big desks. They won’t be part of the system. They are the system.
The Riot Club that gives the movie its title is so exclusive that its limited to 10 members. Each year, the club holds a dinner, a wanton mixture of drunkenness and cruelty that provides the movie with its core event.
Dressed in formal attire, members assemble at a country inn that will be wrecked before the night is through. The club’s commitment to indulgence makes the fraternity brothers of Animal House look like teetotalers.
Among the stand-outs in this rancid group are Alistair (Sam Clafin). A legacy member, Alistair needs little encouragement when it comes to tapping into his worst self.
Then there’s Miles (Max Irons), a student of more modest background, who can’t resist the siren call of elitism. Sadly for Miles, he still has a semblance of conscience.
An Oxford coed named Lauren (Holiday Grainger) offers Miles a chance at a more normal collegiate existence. Poor, deluded Miles. He thinks he can maintain a relationship with Lauren and also be a member of the Riot Club.
Scherfig lets us know that the shield of privilege offers an enduring form of protection. One of the club’s alumni (Tom Hollander) shows us where these young men are headed. Quietly and over drinks in clubs, they’ll preserve the bond of privilege which they see as a birthright.
At first, I was put off by The Riot Club’s lack of subtlety and nuance. There’s little doubt about where Scherfig (An Education) stands when it comes to this kind of men-only preserve.
But if you’re going to make a point, you might as well make it emphatically. Scherfig does. These British one percenters (actually, it’s probably a fraction of one percent) are exposed, indicted and vilified.
They’re in a class by themselves — at least one hopes they are. They all deserve to be throttled.