Room is this year’s favourite amongst mainstream critics with four Oscar nominations and many other accolades, including a BAFTA for Brie Larson as Best Actor. It is a major film for both the Canadian and Irish film industries and it is proving immensely popular with its audiences – already established in IMDB’s Top 250 film entries. Its emotional power eventually worked for me but, surprisingly, in a relatively conventional way. I think I was expecting something quite harrowing but it came across as something different.
The narrative opens with Joy and her son Jack living in a small room as Jack’s fifth birthday approaches. It soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners in the room and that Jack was born there and has no experience of ‘the world outside’. I was quite surprised that Jack ‘escapes’ from ‘Room’ (as he calls it) and the remainder of the narrative deals with what happens to Jack and Joy when they are ‘outside’. I’m still thinking through how the two parts of the narrative fit together. I wonder what might happen if one part was considerably longer and the other shorter? But perhaps the narrative needs a balance between the two? Since the original novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the film script it’s reasonable to assume that the balance is correct but perhaps it depends on the audience? As a childless person, I was less interested in the ‘Room’ sequences than in the family melodrama that followed the release of Joy and Jack – although I think I recognise the interesting questions that the incarceration throws up about Jack’s development cut off from experience of everyday life. One of my viewing companions said how much she enjoyed the viewpoint of the child and it is certainly true that Jack Tremblay the young boy who plays ‘Jack’ gives a remarkable performance. Brie Larson as Joy is also good in what is a difficult role but for me the film picked up with the appearance of Joan Allen as Joy’s mother.
Director Lenny Abrahamson moves into the big league with this film. I didn’t see his previous film Frank, but I do wonder if something has changed with Room. I think I prefer his Irish films What Richard Did (2012) and Garage (2007). In all three films I feel a sense of distanced observation, even though difficult emotional situations are being explored. But in Room the approach just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as in the earlier films – perhaps there was some kind of subconscious attempt to be truer to the script – or perhaps young Jack is just too sympathetic a character? Thinking about Room some days after the screening, I also note that we never find out anything about the man who captures Joy. In the book I understand he is referred to as ‘Old Nick’. I didn’t think about this during the screening but making him a ‘non-human’ character is actually quite disturbing.
I did find the dialogue difficult to follow at times. Perhaps I was disorientated by having to sit in the circle of the Hebden Bridge Picture House (because the stalls have not recovered as yet from the flooding over Christmas). I’m usually much closer to the screen. At one point I thought that Jack referred to being “here in America”? There is actually nothing in the film to confirm that it is actually Toronto that is the location of the action. Yet this did seem to me to be a ‘Canadian film’. It seemed calmer, less frenetic than how I might expect a Hollywood version of the story to work out. I liked this – just as I liked the film overall. But I remain doubtful as to whether it is one of the handful of films that deserve honours and rewards (but then I don’t really value Oscars and BAFTAs – they seem simply commercially-driven celebrity events these days).
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.)
The recent release of What Richard Did by Lenny Abrahamson (reviewed here) has prompted me to go back to look at his earlier release from 2007. Both this and his 2004 first feature Adam and Paul were on my radar but I hadn’t found time to watch them. I’m glad now that I finally made the effort.
Garage is set in an unnamed small town in rural Ireland (it seems to have been shot in several different parts of the country, but mainly in the ‘West Midlands’) and its central character is Josie (Pat Shortt), a 40 year-old man who ‘runs’ filling station/garage situated outside a small town on the main road. In reality he is mainly the caretaker as business is slack and we never see Josie actually serve anyone. He’s employed by one of his old schoolmates who is now an entrepreneur in the town and he lives a fairly solitary life, bedding down in a backroom of the garage. Josie is considered as a little ‘slow’ by the local community – but he is cheerful and friendly and most of the locals don’t make fun of him or abuse his trust. The one lout who does bully him in the bar is the exception. Josie’s life begins to change when his boss decides that there is more passing trade and that the garage should stay open longer. Consequently Josie is joined by an ‘assistant’, a shy and gawky 15 year-old, David. Well-played by Ryan O’Connor, David is a ‘blow-in’ to the small community and therefore initially an ‘outsider’ like Josie in social terms. He’s intelligent and sometimes a bit spiky – a ‘normal’ adolescent – but he gets on with Josie and they become friends. This friendship leads Josie into contacts with the other local teens and perhaps makes him reflect on his loneliness. Indirectly, David’s presence will lead to a series of tragic events.
My first thoughts about the film were that this was a low-budget European art film. There are no genre indications as such except towards the setting of the small town and its possibilities for drama. The town and the handful of local inhabitants are presented in a realist manner and my thoughts turned towards the Dardenne Brothers – but Garage doesn’t have quite the same intensity. A review I read mentioned Bresson. There is gentle humour in the initial representation of Josie’s mundane daily rituals and his contact with various characters. There is also a sense of the relative tranquility of rural Ireland and the potential for some kind of magic in the evening light – although the skies that Josie so enjoys seemed foreboding to me with their scudding clouds. Gradually however, we realise that happy though Josie appears to be in his own little world, he still seeks the possibility of intimacy in a relationship. Eventually too, we realise that Abrahamson is using Peter Robertson’s beautiful cinematography to compose shots very carefully and to look for various forms of symbolism in the mise en scène. The film is slow and nearly always calm. Pat Shortt’s performance is exceptional. He was first a comedian specialising in physical comedy and he uses the skills of a physical comedian to create a distinctive gait for his character, as well as an appropriate voice. His performance also has a resonance since he is well-known in Ireland for a comedy series set in the same kind of location as that in Garage.
I was a little surprised to read in the Press Pack this quote from Lenny Abrahamson:
“Josie is really a contemporary village idiot character but the Irish village doesn’t have any place for him anymore.”
I’m not sure I would use that term to describe a character in a contemporary drama. Of course, I know what he means but it does raise what might be the uncomfortable question at the centre of the film. If this is a realist depiction of Irish rural life, it suggests that there is no modern infrastructure to replace the traditional village community in what is usually seen as one of the more affluent and ‘developed’ societies in Europe. On the other hand, as events transpire, we might argue that the ‘regulation’ of contemporary society is what really makes Josie suffer – that and economic developments. The town’s residents who know Josie and tolerate him don’t really listen to him or help him with his problems. They are just glad that he seems happy. I was interested to read the range of IMDb comments. They include many Irish commentators, but also other Europeans. While most clearly liked the film and thought it praiseworthy, there are a couple of gainsayers, including one who argues that it isn’t a very good representation of a character with mild learning difficulties and another who argues that the residents are too morose and that the rural Irish are more likely to moan and get angry about their lot. These are fair points but as an arthouse film Garage works very well. The excellent production is enhanced by the presence of George Costigan in a small but vital role and Anne-Marie Duff as Carmel (who could probably act as a focus for another story). I can see why the film won one of the Cannes prizes and why Abrahamson and his collaborators are seen as one of Ireland’s most important filmmaking teams.
The final shot of this rather good trailer offers an example of the very effective lighting and composition: