Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. United Kingdom, 2014. Film4, HanWay Films, British Film Institute, Universal Pictures International, Pinewood Pictures, Blueprint Pictures. Screenplay by Laura Wade, based on her play. Cinematography by Sebastian Blenkov. Produced by Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin. Music by Kasper Winding. Production Design by Alice Normington. Costume Design by Steven Noble. Film Editing by Jake Roberts. Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
Attending Oxford is the pinnacle of academic achievement, but it wouldn’t be an old British institution if it didn’t have tiers of exclusionary activity within its very walls as well. This is what comfortably privileged Max Irons learns when he arrives, fulfilling his family’s tradition of attending the prestigious school (everyone else he is related to did as well) and becoming doe-eyed over a delightfully scrappy girl (Holliday Grainger) who is the first in her family to go there. Irons also meets a handful of young men who belong to the titular secret society, a gang of indulgent schoolboys whose tribute to the Riot Club’s centuries-old founding member is to suck the very marrow out of life, wining, dining and debauching to their hearts’ content in order to celebrate life’s brevity and take advantage of being from wealthy, fortified families. It sounds harmlessly cute, but the central set piece of the film (in which its theatrical origins, a stage play by Laura Wade called Posh, make themselves known), is a gathering at a countryside pub where the central figure of malcontented Sam Claflin is pitted against the flimsy resolve of his peers and leads to some very dark activities that only grow worse with the passing of time. The idea that this unfair world lets rich kids, we are cheekily told, make their way to parliament or corporate power regardless of the trouble they get into is certainly nothing new, but Wade keeps you in her seat with her rich characters and superb dialogue, while director Lone Scherfig ups the tension from barely visible to terrifying by the time you reach the film’s climax. More effectively, they place a nagging sense of responsibility upon the members of the audience who do not identify with the characters on screen (which I’m going to assume is most audience members): the film doesn’t just detail the abuses of the privileged class but points out that the rest of the world is completely unprepared, and possibly unwilling, to counter their crimes, challenging the viewer who might fetishize the gorgeous sweaters and fancy dinner parties to think about their own complicity in creating such an inhumane system. Do you really hate their superiority or are you actually envious of it? The stagebound nature of the film will keep it from being a favourite with many, but the actors all provide a rich electrical charge and the conclusion is delightfully complicated.