Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Jack Reynor, Roisin Murphy and Sam Keely
Distributor: Element Pictures
Considering how often we see the headline “Tragedy in Dublin City Center” in the newspapers nowadays, it’s a small wonder how a film such as What Richard Did is only surfacing now. Lenny Abrahamson, who previously directed Adam and Paul and Garage, delivers what may be his most provocative feature yet by examining the life of a young man torn apart by confusion and guilt.
Opening with a group of teenagers heading to their local Tesco to pick up beer and chicken rolls, it is immediately apparent how well Abrahamson understands Irish adolescence. We see the lads joking around, mocking the way people talk, and generally slagging each other, but all in a very good-humored way. He is careful never to cross into Eden Lake territory, making sure that we don’t confuse street-smart teens with petty criminals. They may be drinking cans of cheap booze in a field, but this is a common enough occurrence in contemporary Ireland. Odds are, you will recognize some of your old school friends, or even yourself, in some of the characters depicted onscreen.
The fact that Abrahamason grounds the film so close to reality makes the unfolding events all the more intense. We focus on the character of Richard, who is depicted with both raw emotion and subtlety by Jack Reynor. At first, he is in danger of glorifying his image as the alpha male of the group, making Richard just a little too pure, too easy-going, and a little too good. As the film progresses, however, we discover that he has a far more complex personality than we initially gave him credit for. He forces the audience to constantly second guess themselves, never allowing himself to fall into either a black or white caricature. He tries to be a good person, but he is only human. He has urges, fantasies, and fits of anger and passion. And, like so many of us, he is not above giving into these emotive outbursts.
We see only the barest glimpses of this early on in the film, only a suggestion of aggression in his persona. He breaks up a small confrontation early on, but this is actually quite calm and reserved. He forms a relationship with the character of Lara, who is portrayed very capably by Roisin Murphy. Theirs is an awkwardly charming romance that resonates with authenticity. The language they use is a major factor in this, but it is also relevant that the director doesn’t shy away from the casual everyday banter between the two of them. It is only in some later scenes, in which Richard finds himself idly dismissed by one of Lara’s friends, that we see a storm cloud beginning to form, a glint of anger in his eyes that sets an ominous tone. How well the film transitions from a light-hearted romance into chilling drama is a testament to the masterful editing and direction of the film crew.
Another danger that the film neatly sidesteps is how chaotic the narrative might have become, after we discover What Richard Did. Less capable directors may have found themselves unsure what to focus on, what characters and emotions to highlight and how to ultimately resolve this story. Yet, with truly admiral skill, Abrahamson leads us through Richards’ emotional journey without ever getting distracted by potential sub-plots or being tempted into a conventional Hollywood conclusion. It is a story that benefits enormously from its simplicity. It allows its characters to breathe, and to experience a wide range of complicated and powerful emotions. This is something that simply would not be possible in a more convoluted narrative.
Ultimately, What Richard Did is an awe-inspiring combination of elements that is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken either as a critique of contemporary Irish youth, or adolescence in general, the subject matter will strike a very powerful chord in the hearts of teens and parents alike. It is so well grounded in reality, that we cannot help to emphasize with the characters onscreen. The director allows this very distinctive atmosphere to flow through his film, which is made possible through particularly intelligent writing, brisk pacing and some of the most impressive performances to come out of Ireland in quite some time.
If you are looking for a film to leave a lasting impression, this is it.