In September, The Riot Club – an adaptation of Laura Wade’s controversial Royal Court hit stage play, Posh – will make its way into cinemas… and fear will strike the hearts of those in power accordingly.
All right, so hyperbole aside, it’s easy to see why this project has been causing a stir since its inception; tinged with more than just a whiff of controversy, it is based loosely on the historically-destructive antics of an Oxford University drinking society, The Bullingdon Club (for those who missed the furor caused several years ago, when antics of past members were exposed, this club has counted amongst its ranks several notable members of our current cabinet, including David Cameron and Boris Johnson). The play charts the descent into violent chaos of a group of select Oxford students – privileged, blue-blooded or nouveaux riche, ex-public school, white, male – attending one of their illicit termly dinners.
It has always found itself pinned to its political potential by those who (not unreasonably) have seen it as a theatrical flag-wave for the anti-Tory cause. Certainly with the British Film Institute committing a chunk of funding to the film last year, in the wake of budget slashes induced by government cuts, suggestions that the film is hugely driven towards generating an anti-Conservative rhetoric do have legs to stand on. The Guardian reported as early as last August that MPs such as Lee Scott (Illford North) had told The Mail they questioned the film’s motives. And, considering that it is slated for release ahead of the next General Election campaign season, one could be forgiven for thinking that the film chimes far too easily with other attempts to discredit parliamentary bids by certain prominent politicians – whose historical anecdotes of debauched chaos are somewhat legendary – to be entirely innocent of a political agenda.
And yet, despite the fact all of these discussions are testament to the way films can have an impact beyond the cinema auditorium, they are also testament to something else: to how, recently more than ever, we always seem to be in favour of discussing the political and social context of a film above all else. Discussing film as propaganda or social commentary is useful – but it’s also reductive. Film is fiction, and The Riot Club, like other films, deserves to be opened up to scrutiny beyond its place amongst the battleground of Westminster politics or the education debate. It also has its wider applications. Successful or not (and we can’t yet judge, since we’re awaiting release), if the original play is anything to go by, Wade and Scherfig have embarked upon a project that is at least, conceptually, unique and fascinating: they have taken as their central theme the effects of tribalism amongst a group of young people, and they have transcribed that theme onto a group we hardly ever see observed – the privileged.
Because the Riot Boys are – no matter how much we dress them up in £3000 tailcoats and cut-glass vowels – a gang. They operate under the ideology of an in-group, and their actions are governed accordingly. If this film runs to 110 minutes, then those are 110 minutes spent visualising and narrating a fictitious example of young people living their lives within the safety and stricture of a pack mentality. Having tapped into one of the most successful motifs of dramatic conflict in cinematic history (after all, gang narratives have insinuated themselves into the “Top 100” lists of films, both classic and cult, for decades: where would cinema be without The Godfather or Reservoir Dogs?), Wade and Scherfig have re-imagined what life in a gang is like – but amongst the kind of people we often assume already have it all.
And it is a successful motif, of course, because it is important. Stripped of its contextual dressing – a dressing nicely rendered by Barbour jackets and RP accents, and the quintessential charisma of Brit boy actors such as Max Irons, Sam Clafin and Douglas Booth, gathered behind the locked door of the private dining room where glass shatters freely and views on those “f*cking poor people” are expressed – the project interrogates tribalism in a way that could apply to any gang, regardless of background: it questions how within an in-group situation, personal morality is subsumed by group psychology; how individuals tailor their own ideas and beliefs to suit the agenda of their overarching community; how, when threatened, groups can and often will target and expel their weakest member – with potentially devastating consequences for that individual – so that the group as a whole can survive otherwise unscathed. It is an exposé of the hypocrisy inherent to many social groups: one where the communal ethos bespeaks common ground, yet will internally stratify itself; of how a pack mentality validates its existence by perpetuating a distinction between “us” and “them”. A question arises then: why are we so concerned about the effects of this film as propaganda in a way we never are when Scorsese or Tarantino or Besson take on a project that represents the social world of Italian American mob bosses or the Columbian drugs trade?
One suspects it is because we expect these social worlds and their conflicts on our screen. We are used to them. And more than that, there is a deeper psychology at work under the surface – one which permits us to sympathise with the aspirational crooks of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) or the chummy thugs played by Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta in Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), even as they shock us with their criminal and violent behaviour. These aren’t, after all, folks at the top – they’re folks doing their best to getto the top, even while they’re oppressed by the powerful antagonistic forces (the police, mobster overlords, their communities) doing their best to stop them. In most rollickingly successful gang films – of which there are plenty – success is assured only by the collaboration of the group. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin became George Clooney and Brad Pitt in the Ocean’s Eleven films, and audiences loved the camaraderie between the protagonists and the rest of their band of thieves as much in the 21st century as they did in the 1960s. Menhaj Hudo’s fifteen-year-old female hoods in Kidulthood (2006), led by Stephanie Di Rubbio’s bully Shaneek, represented what it meant to be young, disillusioned, and huddled together in a rabble of angry kids in the West London of 2002. It is when internal stratification arises, as it inevitably always does – when leadership and underdog roles are established – that gangs begin to deteriorate, hemmed in within their own fortress of cult-like commitment to one another.
In other words, fiction stumbled onto its A-game when it realised that the concept of loyalty to one’s constructed social circle is something that hardly ever fails to resonate with its audience. The context surrounding the moral of the fable is pretty irrelevant to its necessity to film. Audiences don’t just go to the cinema looking for a scapegoat; they go to find something they can understand, discovering it within a world they can otherwise never access. We may be unwilling to admit Riot Boys, with their bottles of Bollinger and the world at their feet, to the club (if you’ll pardon the pun) – but they still have every right to be there. Whereas most gang narratives centre around an exclusive in-group that perceives injustices from the perspective of an underclass, the tragedies of The Riot Club stem from the isolation felt by members of an exclusive overclass. But the results are similar enough. Privilege, power and prestige – for one group at the expense of another – are articulated as both the right and the aspiration of these characters, in much the same way that they are for Robert de Niro and James Woods in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), or Stephen Graham and his ilk in This is England (2006). They tear them apart in the same way.Those fencing swords and tailcoats are the same kind of armour as sharp Italian tailoring or Crombie overcoats.
We can feel sorry for these boys, in a way we perhaps otherwise find difficult when viewing their grown-up, real-life counterparts through the lens of media reaction to another budget cut or Cabinet cover-up. These are young men, banded together by a dual code of shared identity and, underneath it all, their own fear of outsiders – of the people who have lived their lives in a different way, by a different moral code, accepting a hierarchy or a rule of deference that does not mesh well with theirs. When called upon to justify their actions and beliefs – ones they know people outside of their circle will never understand – they give nothing at all, instead retreating into one another, and a safety mechanism of cruelty. And, as becomes clearer and clearer throughout the script, their tribalism stems from individual insecurities, and a pervading sense of loneliness – where else can they ever find a love they understand but with their boys?
So in taking us away from the groups we are so used to seeing represented by the gang genre – the mafia, the street hoods, the ethnic minorities, the working class in revolt – and giving us the unexpected, The Riot Club is refreshing a stifled and tired genre, opening it up to the possibility of working beyond its given stereotypes. If the mid-to-late 20th century was dominated by the Italian-American conflicts and their auteurs, and British filmmaking responded with the gritty realism of street hood culture in the early 2000s, then perhaps The Riot Club is tentatively marking a key turning point in film history: one that will look at gang culture in the least expected places. Wade herself hasn’t denied the spectre of influence that is the erudite posh boy, strolling the corridors of power, in her play. In August’s UK edition of Vogue she conceded that – despite their limited presence in the university world – “Riot boys aren’t going away”; but for audiences to concentrate solely on its political effects, and exclude its wider applications within the world of film as a result, is to limit the exciting new dialogue The Riot Club can potentially ignite.