TORONTO – When Max Irons first read the script for “The Riot Club,” he was repulsed by the explosive drama about an elite but depraved Oxford society.
“I hated it. I thought it was such an unpleasant reality,” the 29-year-old admitted in an interview at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival.
But at his agent’s insistence, he read it again — more slowly the second time — and realized the film would offer a rare, unflinching look at the top tier of the British class system.
“I think that is pretty important. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at areas of English society and the class system, and yet this particular area has sort of been off limits,” he said.
“The Riot Club” opens Friday in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Directed by Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), the film follows two first-year students at Oxford University who join an exclusive society called the Riot Club.
Laura Wade wrote the script based on her play “Posh” and has insisted the club is fictional. But that hasn’t stopped critics from noticing similarities to Oxford’s notorious Bullingdon Club, which once counted U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson among its members.
Irons, the son of actor Jeremy Irons, plays Miles, who is at first seduced by the club’s perks. But he’s later horrified by its power. Sam Claflin plays Alistair, whose entitlement has festered into seething resentment of the poor.
These tensions reach a violent breaking point at a drunken pub dinner, during which the boys lash out at Miles’s girlfriend (Holliday Grainger) and an outspoken sex worker (Natalie Dormer).
Several of the young actors met with real “Bullingdon boys” in preparation for the film. Irons recalled one club member saying, “The minute you walk into these rooms … the rules that apply outside no longer apply in here.”
“I think the thing you got from a lot of them was this is a unique three years out of their lives,” Irons said. “They could sort of surrender themselves to hedonism and just go nuts.”
The film attracted controversy when it received British Film Institute funding in 2013. The Guardian reported that some Conservative MPs felt the movie was biased and meant to remind voters of Cameron and Johnson’s privileged backgrounds ahead of the 2015 general election.
In a separate interview at the Toronto film festival, Scherfig chuckled when asked about the outcry.
“That kind of attention is also a form of enthusiasm,” said the Danish director. “I like that England is so politicized. I think it’s a big virtue in their country. When they don’t talk about football, they do talk about politics. You have ongoing debate and this film plays a role in that debate.”
Scherfig also explored class in “An Education,” a 2009 coming-of-age tale that helped launch Carey Mulligan’s career. But the director called her previous film “more innocent.”
“(‘The Riot Club’) says that privilege is something you have to handle with great responsibility and these boys don’t,” she said. “They behave really badly because they can and they will get away with it.”