Obviously, I’m not going to tell you what Richard did, but actually the film is about what happened afterwards. Lenny Abrahamson’s film is set amongst the gilded youth of a South Dublin middle class community (or should that be upper-middle-class?). In the summer before he starts university, Richard seems to have it all. He’s been one of the stars of the rugby team at a prestigious school. His parents own a beach house in Co. Wicklow and he drives his own Golf. He’s the leader of his group and in some ways a ‘father figure’ at 18, looking out for younger guys (and girls) – he’s the kind of guy who can reassure other guys’ parents. If their son or daughter is with Richard, they’ll be fine. But when Richard meets Lara, he starts to change.
What Richard Did is a taut and suspenseful study of one young man’s summer and the effects of a moment of madness – which in itself is almost banal in its familiarity in a film involving 18 year-old boys. Far more sinister is what happens afterwards and the way in which privilege allows characters to erase certain kinds of social distress and to ‘move on’. On the other hand, human compassion probably means that we don’t want Richard to have to live with what he has done. We are more likely to be wishing for a way out, no matter how complicit that might make us feel. The film is very much about social class, but the early indications of the potential damage that class difference can create are presented in quite subtle ways. Later, when the boys of the rugby team ‘bond’ by singing the school song in a formal setting it is very disturbing. One review mentioned the omerta, the ‘code of silence’ in Southern Italy and that seems a good call, except that there is no ‘community’ as such to fall back on.
Lenny Abrahamson has already proved himself as adept in creating important fictions about different sectors of Irish society in Adam & Paul and Garage. What Richard Did is just as good as the earlier films. So far I’ve only come up with two slight problems. As in Garage, there is a narrative moment early in the film that you later realise has hinted at the narrative dénouement. This is a feature of Hitchcockian thrillers and the like and there is nothing wrong with it – in fact it can add immeasurably to the pleasure of unpicking the narrative to see how these ‘pre-markers’ fit in. But What Richard Did otherwise doesn’t seem that kind of film. Abrahamson’s skill seems to be in creating a narrative that is open to several different forms of interpretation rather than being some kind of puzzle game. My second complaint is purely practical. For the first twenty minutes or so I had great difficulty following the dialogue. Later in the narrative, the problem faded away. Perhaps my ear gradually tuned in? More likely, the language register changed. The screenwriter Malcolm Campbell attempted to go for the most authentic representation of the speech of these South Dublin teens after sitting in Starbucks with them and jotting down words and phrases during his research. As an Irish student blog puts it:
[The film’s] only flaw on the international table is its huge dependency on south-sider and Dublin slang. It’s brilliant and fits the film, but it keeps it anchored to the island.
The film has been sold in Europe where it will be subtitled and I wish I’d had the benefit of subs. I understood the tone of the exchanges between characters in the early scenes but I missed the nuances and therefore I didn’t pick up on the development of Richard’s interest in Lara and its repercussions as quickly as I would have liked. But in a way, my struggle to hear the dialogue is in keeping with other aspects of Abrahamson’s approach. He gives very little background on Richard’s family and none on Lara’s or those of Richard’s other friends. We do get to meet Richard’s father played by Lars Mikkelsen, but the Danish side of the family isn’t explained as such (Richard’s family name is Karlsen). Mikkelsen’s father is a mysterious character and his performance adds to this in a pivotal scene in which he talks to his son in a way that we guess he hasn’t done before. I’ve seen one negative review of the Mikkelsen casting, but everyone else has praised it. His presence makes us think about Danish dramas and What Richard Did for me stands up to the best of that very strong tradition of Nordic film drama.
The rest of the cast is excellent too. Three of the principals were themselves at school in Dublin when Abrahamson found them, with the boys coming from Belvedere College and Gonzaga College, Jesuit private schools that are two of the most highly-regarded in Ireland. But the film stands or falls on the casting and performance of Jack Reynor as Richard. He is astonishingly good in embodying the child-man who is forced to learn about himself so painfully. In certain close-ups the ‘fuzz’ of hair on puppy fat or the quizzical look makes him seem a younger teenager (see the image below). At other times his athletic body and broad shoulders make him a man. He performs his role to perfection – though the outstanding direction by Abrahamson and very effective cinematography (by David Grennan) must share some of the praise. Reynor has gone on to appear in other Irish films but he has also been snapped up by Michael Bay for Transformers 4. I desperately hope he survives that experience intact.
What Richard Did is a ‘must-see’ film. As I left the screening one of my colleagues suggested that it was almost like an Eric Rohmer film. I think I contested this but the more I think about it, the sense of a ‘moral tale’ becomes more palpable. Perhaps it is also (as the director hints) in some ways allegorical about Ireland after the crash of 2008 with a moneyed class who have so far avoided the pain suffered by the majority?
Official website (with screening dates in the UK and Ireland)
Get the Press Pack here.
Hannah McGill’s review of the film in Sight & Sound (February 2013) makes several assertions that I’m not sure about (her summary is incorrect in at least one respect). She says that both Lara and Conor are Catholic and from a lower social class than Richard who she asserts is Protestant. In fact she says that Lara is Catholic ‘by heavy implication’. I must have missed something here. I didn’t see too many overt religious references. I assume that most of the characters are Catholic (and Richard’s school). Richard’s Danish father is more likely to be Lutheran but I took the Karlsens to be a largely secular family. Can somebody help me out? (There is also a useful background piece on the film in the same issue of Sight & Sound.)