Thursday, October 18, 2012

What Richard Did

An End of Innocence
Image courtesy of Element Distribution
 [a Film Ha Ha disclaimer: article contains detailed plot analysis and spoilers] 

And so it is as it was written: Lenny Abrahamson has become the director laureate of Irish cinema.

Abrahamson had already proven himself to be Ireland's most distinguished, artful auteur with his first two features Adam & Paul and Garage (the latter of which I admired, but whose rural setting and subject matter left me cold). His third feature What Richard Did is, however, sees him absolutely knocking it out of the park. It's not a film that assaults you aesthetically:  it's a short, understated and deceptively simple piece of work. Yet Abrahamson's film has one great asset, and that is its fascinating protagonist. Like Josey (Pat Shortt) in Garage, the lead barely leaves the screen.

What Richard Did is, as the title helpfully suggests, all about Richard (realised impressively by new kid on the block Jack Reynor, who has much more to work with than his recent role in Kirsten Sheridan's thematically similar Dollhouse). The film is loosely based on true events - a well-publicised case here in Ireland where a student from a prestigious private school in suburban Dublin was viciously assaulted and killed outside a nightclub. Three other pupils were charged with manslaughter and violent assault. The incident was explored in semi-fictional form in the novel Bad Day at Blackrock. Abrahamson has further fictionalised events here, leaving only the vaguest of similarities to the original case. "Sorta based on a true story", I guess.

The film is primarily set in the Dublin 4 area, amongst the upper-middle class. In Irish media, the rugby-playing, wealthy youths from the area are often satirised and mocked, most famously through the misadventures of Ross O'Carroll Kelly. And, in fairness, they can be easy targets. Abrahamson is smarter than that and plays things completely straight. From the off, he's at pains to establish Richard as a decent, friendly guy. He's (deservedly) well-liked by his peers, is always willing to protect younger, more vulnerable companions and enjoys a happy family life. The carefully paced first act allows us to spend time with a thoroughly likeable guy, and it's hard not to warm to him.

Of course, Richard is a teenager, and no teenager is immune to the charms of the opposite sex. On a group trip to the beach, Richard is introduced to Lara (Roisin Murphy), who has some sort of only vaguely defined relationship with Richard's rugby teammate Conor (Sam Keeley). As Lara and Richard meet again at various subsequent social events, it's clear that the two are smitten with each other. Sexy time inevitably follows, and the two begin dating. Conor is naturally not best pleased with this development, and Lara isn't entirely willing to sever her friendship with her old friend either. As she grows increasingly distant, Richard becomes frustrated and jealous. Then comes a fateful, drunken house party, when the love triangle comes to a dramatic and violent conclusion.

The focus is never off Richard - he's in every single scene of the film - at times almost every frame - and we only catch ambiguous glimpses of other characters when they're in his company. We're observers of one kid's frame of mind (without cheesy voiceover, of course) before, during and after an unexpected tragedy. A single moment of anger and passion is all it takes for Richard's comfortable life to be thrown into complete disarray. The morning after shit hits the fan, a hungover, remorseful Richard sits down for a cup of tea with his parents. He hears the news on the radio, and his rapidly altering expression says everything that needs to be said. It's heartbreaking - a guy we've grown to like now faces an uncertain future due to one idiotic mistake and its unexpected consequences. Everything is different from Richard's perspective, and as others mourn he is dealing with massive amounts of internal guilt and confusion.

In the third act, it initially seems Richard is bound for self-destruction as he frustrates important relationships and decides to cover up his actions (assisted by friends and his father - the excellent Lars Mikkelsen - who he is compelled to confess to in one of the film's most powerful sequences). Yet, as the film draws to a close, we see himself committing to a new university course. The film ends on a note of uncertainty - it's likely that he will succeed academically and professionally, but Richard is irrecoverably changed from the innocent, charming teenager we met in act one. I've heard a few people express frustration with the ending, but to me it ends where it has to: at the end of a journey, and devoid of legal or thriller nonsense that would have significantly decreased the film's worth.
Because, at its core, What Richard Did is a character study. Abrahamson is intensely committed to his protagonist, and frames him minus cheap tricks or contrivances (a misjudged soundtrack is the one minor weak link in an otherwise exceptionally realised film). With Reynor doing a superb job at bringing Richard to life, the result is a deeply involving and emotionally raw work. Abrahamson doesn't judge or condescend like a lesser director surely would. It's a focused, smart film. Less isn't always more, but in this case it very much is, and Abrahamson has firmly cemented himself as the great Irish director of the moment. Richard is a wonderfully crafted individual, and what he did makes for genuinely compelling cinema.

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