Sunday, September 7, 2014

TIFF 2014: The Riot Club

Sam Claflin as Alistair
The Riot Club (UK, 2014) directed by Lone Scherfig, 106 minutes, Visa Screening Room at the Elgin, 11.30a

If you hate the British, public school educated elite ... if you assume them to be a bunch of right-wing, elitist, dangerous minded snobs ... this is the film for you. When two Oxford freshmen are tapped to join Oxford’s elite Riot Club, chaos ensues. The Riot Club is a secret society of ten wealthy Oxford university men; their goal is indulgence and debauchery and the tradition stretches back hundreds of years. The club is loosely based on the Bullingdon Club whose past members included Edward VIII, current British Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

We are many years away from one of Scherfig's earlier offerings entitled Italian for Beginners (2000) which was influenced by the avant-garde Dogme film movement in Denmark - its precepts include (among many others) a hand held camera, uncredited director, no optical tricks, no music. And this rule stands out: "The film must not contain superficial action" such as a murder. The dictates of the movement now sound as fussy and persnickety as the meeting of a temperance group.

The images in The Riot Club are lush and sensuous; Oxford University is beautifully shot; the actors uniformly youthful and attractive. When a freshman stands on the roof of a 

building and looks out on the campus with pride and exaltation, one feels her sense of joy and wonder.

Miles (Max Irons, son of British actors Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusak) has the "right"pedigree and went to the "right" schools but has a soft spot for Lauren (Holliday Grainger), a highly intelligent girl from the north of England who is the first in her family to reach such an elite institution. He courts her in the first few weeks of university. 

He is made the tutorial partner of Alistair Ryle (Sam Claflin), a surly, right wing scion of a very well connected family whose brother and father both went to Oxford. One knows immediately who you are dealing with when Alistar's father tried to bully the university into letting Alistair have his old room at Oxford that the father and older brother once occupied. That room is graciously relinquished by Miles.

After the ritual hazing - which is as disgusting and as offensive as you can imagine - the Riot Club boys plan a night of excess at a distant pub (as they have been banned from many establishments nearer for good reason, also a trademark of the original Bullingdon Club). 

Alcohol, cocaine and the promise of sex, consensual or otherwise, becomes a potent mix and Miles is pushed to the limit regarding his moral boundaries. To say more would ruin the plot of the film. Let us just say that the depths of their cruelty and ugly behavior is thoroughly believable and depicted with razor sharp intensity by director Scherfig. 

The film stayed with me but I was discomfited by the "posh" stereotypes - granted with such a large cast and limited time it would be difficult to flesh out specific types. Scherig uses a quick visual shorthand to distinguish them and that many would easily recognize - the effeminate twits; the closeted gay aristocrat; the spoiled, handsome brat; the heartless right wing hardass; the weak, scheming manipulator; the lone ethnic outsider permitted in; the innocent ... not one among them demonstrates compassion or even just plan common sense aside from Miles. 

We've seen the cliches and they likely represent very real types - but what about an image fleshed out in such a manner that we question our presumptions about the upper crust and those who also yearn to be them?

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