The Riot Club (and five other films about the upper classes)
Counting the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson among its alumni, the notorious Bullingdon Club has already inspired a successful play in the form of Laura Wade's 2010 stage production, Posh, which lampooned the famously exclusive Oxford University “dining club” and shone a spotlight on its reputation as a bastion for obnoxious behaviour and unchecked privilege. With a modus operandi that includes smashing up expensive restaurants and herding cows into hotel lifts, it might not be the kind of behaviour you'd want from those entrusted to run the country, but it was always going to provide entertainment value, so it was no huge surprise to see the success of Wade's play replicated on the big screen last year.
Arriving on DVD and Blu-Ray next week (January 19th), The Riot Club is based on Wade's stage show, adapted by Wade herself with Danish director Lone Scherfig at the helm. Part of the avant-garde Dogme 95 movement that includes filmmakers such as Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, Scherfig was also behind the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Lynn Barber's memoir An Education and brings her talents to bear on this tale of posh boys behaving badly.
Featuring a cast that includes Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Natalie Dormer and Holiday Grainger, The Riot Club details the story of ten Oxford University students from aristocratic backgrounds who join a club whose aims are ostensibly to enjoy fine dining, but in reality seems more concerned with causing mayhem and displaying extraordinary levels of arrogance and misogynistic contempt. In the midst of one of their outrageous parties at a country pub, a landlord is severely injured when one of the boys, Alistair, launches a savage attack on him. The only one of the group who sees fit to call an ambulance is Chris, the club's newest member. The boys are all arrested and, like the bunch of stand-up gents that they are, agree that if they are going to save their reputations they should all blame Chris for the attack. Nice. Although we should state for the record that this particular plot line is not based on actual events, it's no wonder David Cameron and his friends aren't keen on talking about their Bullingdon days.
The Riot Club is unlikely to endear the upper classes to the general public and will – one would hope – bring a twinge of acute embarrassment and shame to the Bullingdon alumni, but the film offers a rare peek behind the curtains into the inner workings of the country's political and financial elite, something that is all too uncommon. Costume dramas aside, on the occasions where the upper classes have been portrayed on the big screen, the results are rarely flattering for those at the top.
You can find the trailer below, and while you're waiting to vent your spleen at The Riot Club next week, we've picked out five other screen depictions of the upper classes and the social elite for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy...
Bright Young Things
A directorial debut for actor and national treasure Stephen Fry, 2003's Bright Young Things is based on Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies, which parodies the social scene among well-heeled young types in the period between the first and second world wars. With a stellar cast that includes Jim Broadbent, Peter O'Toole, Emily Mortimer, James McAvoy, Michael Sheen and Dan Ackroyd among its extensive ranks, Fry's film is a more gentle lampooning of the upper classes than you'll find in The Riot Club, but it's no less smart in its depiction of the airheaded young aristocrats in Waugh's story. Fry's depiction of the characters has more in common with Hugh Laurie's portrayal of Prince George in the second Blackadder series than anything more vitriolic, and while it lacks the bleakness of Waugh's book, it more than makes up the difference by being very, very funny.
By the time he made Gosford Park in 2001, Robert Altman was in the twilight of a hugely influential career as a director and, much like Stephen Fry, had no trouble in assembling an impressive cast, which in this case includes Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Richard E. Grant and Helen Mirren among many others. Set in a rural country manor house, Gosford Park is essentially a classic whodunnit in the vein of an Agatha Christie novel, with a clever self-aware element that sees one of the guests, a film director named Morris Weismann (Bob Balaban), detailing the plot of his new picture, a murder mystery that takes place in almost the exact same circumstances as he now finds himself in when another guest is murdered just as he's finished describing the film to his fellow diners. The twisting narrative that ensues keeps the viewer guessing throughout and the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between the servants and their aristocratic overseers combine with an excellent ensemble performance to make this a hugely enjoyable film.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Although Luis Brunel's 1972 surrealist masterpiece is, as the title suggests, more accurately described as a portrayal of the upper middle classes, it's just as cutting in its depiction of those who aspire to the elitist values of the aristocracy and we've included it on the basis that it's unlike almost any other film you'll ever see. Based around a series of five different – but thematically linked – scenes in which a group of friends attempt to have dinner together, Brunel's mischievous film ensures his characters never get to eat, interrupting each of the gatherings with a variety of bizarre incidents. One such intrusion finds the French army inviting themselves to join the group, while another sees them sit down at a table in one of their dining rooms, only to discover that is fact a theatre set and that they are being watched by an audience. It will mess with your mind, but if you're into that sort of thing then this is well worth a look.
Eyes Wide Shut
Stanley Kubrick's final film before his death in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut is one of his most unusual and esoteric. The film also takes on an eerily prophetic dimension thanks to the inclusion of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman playing a couple struggling with marital difficulties, a little under two years before the real life couple actually split. Set in New York, Bill (Cruise) is introduced to the party scene of the city's social elite following a meeting with his old school friend Nick (Sean Penn), where he learns that his jazz pianist buddy has been playing some rather bizarre gigs where he is ordered to play blindfolded. Intrigued, Bill gains access to one of the masked balls using a password Nick gives him, and he soon discovers a behind-closed-doors world of outrageous decadence, corruption and bizarre sexual rituals not unlike those featured in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Packed with the kind of occult symbolism that has kept the conspiracy theorists' chatrooms alive with speculation ever since, Eyes Wide Shut offers a highly unflattering depiction of those in positions of power, but its essential viewing nonetheless.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, rounding off our list is this 1989 horror film from director Brian Yuzna, the man who produced films like Re-Animator and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. If you thought the depiction of the upper classes as members of a bizarre sex cult was harsh, wait until you get a load of this. Billy Warlock stars as a young man who begins to wonder if he is adopted, noting that his parents and the rest of his well-to-do family enjoy socialising with other members of the upper classes, while he prefers hanging out with regular types. His suspicions are more than confirmed when he returns home one day to discover a party in full swing, where he learns that not only is he adopted, his foster family are in fact of a different species, one that likes to kill and eat the poor. Yes, it's trashy, but if you enjoyed films like Peter Jackson's Bad Taste, you'll probably find that this is a slice of b-movie gold.