The Riot Club’s theatrical roots are apparent in the film’s structure: most of the action centres on a single dinner, conforming loosely to the unities of time, action and place that are not so common in cinema. That said, Laura Wade’s adaptation of her play (Posh) works very well on the big screen, its cast of loathsome characters proving queasily engaging.
The Riot Club is fictional, but it is based – not very obliquely – on the real-life Bullingdon Club, whose famous alumni include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. If even half of what the film suggests is true, then it is terrifying to think that we are being governed by such a group of louche, hedonistic, over-privileged thugs.
We see the Riot Club through the eyes of Miles (Max Irons), whose instinctive good nature is compromised when he joins the group. He is flattered to be asked; as Harry (Douglas Booth) boasts, there are twenty-thousand students at Oxford, but only the finest ten can join the Riot Club. Their definition of ‘finest’ is rather narrow: members must be male (of course), and have attended a good school (“Eton, St Paul’s, Westminster… Harrow if you absolutely must”); furthermore, they need the right connections and the willingness to endure a series of bizarre initiation rites. Miles appears to fit the bill, although his fellow club members are bemused and appalled by his choice of girlfriend, a state-educated northerner called Lauren (Holliday Granger). But what starts as fun and silly snobbery soon reveals a darker side: the boys have such a strong sense of entitlement that they cannot empathise with anyone outside their set. They cause mayhem and destruction and do not care; they know that they can pay their way out of trouble.
Parts of this polemical film are genuinely difficult to watch. Life is just a game to the Riot Club boys; they commit atrocious deeds in the full knowledge that they will not just get away with them, but will go on to work in positions of incredible power. They really can do what they like.