Lone Scherfig’s “The Riot Club” is a blistering attack on English society that argues the country’s class system is alive, thriving and totally unapologetic.
The adaptation of Laura Wade’s 2010 play “Posh” centers on an elite Oxford club for high society types and a raucous night out that ends in tragedy and a cover-up. It is scheduled to cross the pond and open in the United States on March 27.
That may be a challenge for the film, as its targets and investigation into the limits of social mobility could get lost in translation. Race, not caste, remains America’s dominant obsession, but Scherfig and her cast of up-and-coming leading men maintain that the film’s message will be able to traverse the Atlantic.
“The issue of how power and money divide people and how that leads to corruption exists everywhere,” said Max Irons, one of the film’s stars. “These clubs aren’t just in England. Yale has the Skull and Bones, and they are important jumping off points for higher office and control of the corporate world.”
Irons is the son of actors Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack, so he comes from the upper echelons of English society. Not everyone was as well versed. Scherfig, a Danish director best known for “An Education,” and other members of the cast treated Oxford’s club system as foreign countries. That unfamiliarity with the mores of the film’s protagonists was an asset, “The Riot Club” team claims.
“Lone just approached this from an outsider’s perspective,” said Sam Claflin, another of the film’s leads. “Going through that journey of understanding, we really grew to love the world and the characters.”
Claflin hails from a middle class background, so the elite clubs that “The Riot Club” sends up were just as alien to him as Scherfig.
“This is basically a gang culture but in the upper class,” he said. “It’s really no different, other than they get away with it. It’s who you know, and that gives you a free pass to do whatever you want. Money buys you power.”
To be sure, the first half of the movie, which shows the good-looking members of the club drinking to excess, driving fast cars, wearing elegant clothes and generally behaving like charismatic rogues, makes the world of power and privilege seem enormously appealing. It’s only in the picture’s second act, when Scherfig and Wade dramatize how these social ties are able to brush aside a shocking act of violence, that the picture’s moral compass becomes more pronounced.
The pivot from attraction to repulsion led Scherfig to liken the film to vampire pictures.
“I hope you’re seduced in beginning, but are left asking questions in the end,” she said. “It’s like theater in that it poses questions rather than builds bridges that leave you in harmony.”
The characters in the picture are all young men in their late teens and early 20s navigating adulthood. It’s a period that Scherfig previously explored in “An Education,” which looked at a precocious high schooler and her relationship with an older man, and “One Day,” which centered on two friends who meet after graduating from college.
“The way you perceive things at that age, the choices you make and how you are finding your feet morally and finding your values is an incredibly interesting period to study in a person’s life,” said Scherfig.
When “The Riot Club” debuted last year in the United Kingdom, it landed with the kind of pop that it probably won’t enjoy on these shores. The club at the center of the film is loosely modeled on the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive dining group at Oxford that counts Prime Minister David Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson as members. The film’s look at the dark underside of this brand of institutional elitism and the country’s tilt toward more conservative politics inspired fierce debate.
“People got angry,” said Irons. “This is a film, like life, where there isn’t any poetic ending. The cold hard truth is, not everyone is born equal and equal justice doesn’t exist. If that makes you angry and gets younger people to take an interest and maybe cast their vote in a different direction, then we’ve done our job.”
Names like David Cameron and Boris Johnson may be unfamiliar to American moviegoers, but social inequity isn’t just an English affliction. It’s universal.
Welcome to “The Riot Club.”