Thursday, February 5, 2015

Film Review: The Riot Club

I have been looking forward to seeing this film for quite a while. It is based on an award-winning play, POSH, by British playwright Laura Wade. As did the play, the film has garnered some good reviews, and in particular, its ensemble cast of ten of Great Britain's best young male actors have received positive attention for their roles. As some of you know, I became a fan of upcoming actor and former model Max Irons, after seeing his performance as King Edward IV of England in made-for-cable miniseries, The White Queen. His performance has been one of those singled out for praise in The Riot Club. And so I was excited to see him in this film. Because I am a fan of stage plays, and fascinating by the art of writing for theatre, I am always interested to see how a play has been adapted for the big screen.

The Riot Club was released first in the UK, and subsequently across Europe from early fall until present. The cast and producers have put in a lot of time with personal appearances at various premieres, and it has been met with good energy everywhere, including in Canada where it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in November of 2014. Its U.S. release is set for late March. It was directed by Danish director/producer Lone Scherfig.

The film is well-produced and adequately filmed. Not one performance is lacking, from the least - lasting a few seconds - to those of the ensemble cast of eleven men and two women, each of whom plays a major role. I found the structure of the plot rather odd, and had to settle in a bit to it: this was no doubt a result of the adaptation from stage. I'm not certain whether editing could have remedied the feeling that the build-up was too short and the debauchery scene very long. It seems that the balance achieved was necessary to the success of the plot.

The story follows two freshmen at Oxford University, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin). Both
Sam Claflin (left); Max Irons
are approached almost immediately by a mysterious underground by-invite-only "social club" known as the Riot Club - named after a 17th-century nobleman who engaged in abandonned and continuous debauchery, and was stabbed in the stomach for it by a cuckholded husband. The boys see this history as terribly romantic and exciting and use it as an excuse to engage in a carpe diem lifestyle while at school which includes playing various pranks that are so extreme that they are more disgusting than amusing. But these kids are rich, and it's old money. They simply pay their way out of scrapes with wads of bills from their pockets and the help of Daddy's lawyers.

I know, you're imagining the horror stories we hear coming out of frat house hazings, right?  In most countries, the children of the financial elite sometimes get away with horrible behavior, and pay and/or intimidate their way out of it. But forget all that: the antics of this crowd would make the most hardened frat boys' jaws drop. They are truly out of control. The viewer feels the situation veering out of hand from early in the film, and the thing is that it never really careens until all Hell breaks loose well past the hour-long mark - it just crawls slowly to an increasingly dark inevitability, and it keeps the viewer mesmerized. It is the horror show you can't look away from - even as you know you don't want to see it.

Stories came out of the set during production that the cast itself was often uncomfortable with the subject matter. The male ensemble discussed it together at length, took time to bond so that filming the worst would be easier on them mentally. Actresses Holliday Grainger and Jessica Brown-Findlay have spoken about struggling with the tension of the misogynistic scenes in the film. Max Irons has told the press a few times that when first presented with the script, he felt he would decline the role, feeling that he didn't want to do something "so disgusting". But he thought about it further, considered that clubs such as the one depicted in the film have been the stuff of university legend for years;  a few years back some of the elite in the British government were discovered to have participated in such behavior themselves, and there was quite the scandal at the time. Irons decided that it was "an important story" and "a discussion that needs to happen" in the greater social context, and he agreed to participate.

Much is made in the film, and during interviews with the cast and director, about this social context. Most of Europe is deeply entrenched in the realities of social class differences, to a greater extent than Americans and Canadians experience. It seems to infiltrate so much of the way of looking at life. I say this as one who has lived in Europe, and was married into a European family for near two decades. To understand - as we do in America - that a lot of money brings what is sometimes too much privilege, and to as a Brit understand it as a sort of wall built over hundreds of years that cannot be scaled, is two different sensibilities.  And so perhaps my appreciation of the film from that perspective was a bit limited.

I think that perhaps my experience of the film was also affected by my gender. Why is it that young men, when they assume their ugliest personas, have to be so damned ugly toward women?  It would be funny if it weren't so horrid: the notion that a male somehow raises himself in the eyes of other males by demeaning those most vulnerable to testosterone-out-of-control, is something I have never been able to understand. The scenes which depict this particular behavior are so vile, that Holliday Grainger describes a sort of dream state she entered during filming the worst, when the line between what was the set and what was real seemed to blur. At one point she describes how one of the actors laid a kind hand on her to ask if she were all right, and she shivered, unable to stand him touching her. She rushes to explain that all the male actors involved were kind people and spoke of their own disgust as well, but it didn't make the filming of it any easier.

Of all the heinous behaviors depicted in the film, perhaps this one was the worst: the harassment of
women. Let me describe what I mean: some of the boys are frustrated that a high-priced call girl they hired to perform oral sex on them all under the dinner table has told them where to stick it (er..them) and walked out without the boys getting their fun. Later, Miles' girlfriend - having been tricked into coming to the restaurant - stumbles upon the drunken orgy at hand. The male mob turns on her, openly taunting her with language meant to intimidate and then terrify her into believing she will be raped, as they physically restrain her (and restrain a horrified Miles, who has let it go this far before trying to intervene). The girl finally escapes, but of course, nothing will ever be the same for the two lovers.

Which brings me to the point of the film. The behavior of the boys escalates over much of the film - each time the viewer hopes that we have seen the worst - and many times it seems that it is in fact enough to get the point - it keeps getting worse. It is ratcheted up yet another notch. Is destroying a working family's place of business enough?  Destroying a treasured collection of artwork? Vomiting under tables? Breaking literally everything in a room?  Is humiliating an escort enough?  Or a young woman who means no harm, and comes into the room expecting no harm to herself? Is terrifying her in an intimately, primal sexual way for one's amusement enough? How about beating a man senseless, as a gang, because you can?

As I write, it's been one day since the world was horrified by the act of a terrorist gang of thugs in Syria burning a young man alive in a cage. This gang has, over a year, gotten more and more brazen in terms of how it tortures and kills. From hangings to beheadings. From stonings to throwing people off buildings. And now we are back in the Middle Ages, burning people alive. As one news pundit said today - we have to understand that these are young men who are enjoying what they are doing. They are enjoying the victim's suffering and they are enjoying the horror we feel at seeing what they have done.  I thought a lot about this as I watched The Riot Club.

I thought about the nature of power - whether political or monetary, by virtue of terror or by inherited wealth.  I thought about human nature too.  I thought about what Miles' girlfriend says to him, tears streaming and body shaking, as she throws cold water on his effort to seek her forgiveness, "You were THERE. You had a choice, Miles, and you chose to do NOTHING."

The ugliest behavior humans can engage in are wrapped up in the under two hours of this film. When intimidation and power is used to destroy another - whether by the horrible psychological torture suggested in this film, or by setting fire to a person - I have to believe that the gods weep for us all: both for those who do it, and those who stand by and do nothing.

In the end, what is really the difference between the minds of young men engaged in a gang rape or beating a man blind in the back room of a pub, and the minds of a Middle Eastern thug?  What are we going to do about these acts, in our own societies, behind the doors of our governments, and within our universities? How much is too much for us as a species to bear, before we stop turning our faces away and excusing it? Before we stop refusing to be emotionally present, before we stop doing nothing?

These are questions this haunting film leaves us. I didn't enjoy it. I never want to see it again. But I'm glad I did see it once, and that it made me think about things that perhaps we all should be giving thought to from time to time.  As Mr. Irons observed, the story is important on many levels, depending on one's perspective, and it certainly is a place to start a much needed discussion. The most relevant films are those that make us look in the mirror, and for that, The Riot Club deserves accolades.