What Richard Did is the third feature film by director Lenny Abrahamson and his first since the phenomenal Garage made Abrahamson an international name in 2007. He has taken his time choosing his next film and with What Richard Did we get another insight into modern Ireland that is both universal and recognisably local.
Richard (Jack Reynor) is a successful rugby player who would seem to have the world in the palm of his hand. He is planning to go into rugby professionally, but also continue his studies at the same time. He is very popular and is surrounded by mates and people who look up to him, particularly Stephen and Cian (Gavin Drea and Fionn Walton). He starts a romance with Lara (Roisin Murphy) and looks set to enjoy a long, uncomplicated summer. However, his drunken actions during a brawl outside a house party one night might just ruin his life.
Abrahamson imbues the film with a very real sense of sympathy for Richard, just as he did with the social outcasts in Adam and Paul and Garage. Though the middle class milieu is totally different from those of his previous two films, Abrahamson nevertheless displays the same ability to lift the lid on a particular group of people and reveal the psychology beneath. Richard is a popular guy, but Abrahamson and Reynor present him as an ambiguous character from the very beginning. We often see Richard staring enigmatically at a sunset or at some scenery, the observational style and the ambiguity of the film’s title suggesting that there is a lot going on underneath the surface that Richard presents. When he is alone, Richard is subdued, almost immobile, as if constrained by some deep dissatisfaction or fear.
This may seem premature as all of this occurs before the event, midway through the film, which will alter Richard’s life forever. However, Abrahamson is more interested in his character than he is in conventional plotting and, as a result, it is clear that there is something mildly wrong with Richard before the unfortunate incident. This feature of What Richard Did is worth emphasising as it is emblematic of the film’s ability to suggest almost as much as it reveals, making it a film full of allusive possibilities. Indeed, the previous relationship between Richard and his eventual victim remains unclear throughout the film. It seems that there is some kind of a past between them but the film never bogs itself down in redundant specifics, preferring a richness of possibilities. As a result, What Richard Did is the kind of film that ought to be endlessly talked about.
However, Abrahamson, for all his allusive illusiveness, has not made a film full of ciphers. Most of the actors in the film are very good and the film has a very Cassavetes-feel to it, seeming semi-improvised and workshopped. Jack Reynor is fantastic, easily carrying the film with a performance that is keenly aware of both Richard’s sheer confidence and extroversion and his less definable, darker qualities. Of the adults, Richard’s father Peter (Lars Mikkelsen) is the most interesting, producing a fine study of ineffectual horror. The majority of the young actors are very good at presumably just being themselves with Sam Keeley and Patrick Gibson. Richard will eventually have a long awaited breakdown and Reynor’s performance and Abrahamson’s eye for harrowing realism make the scene a key moment.
Of course, the film will end somewhat inconclusively, but the drama that Abrahamson wrings from the film’s situation is utterly fascinating. The film’s final ten minutes are remarkable for the sheer volume of ideas and nuances that are presented. Defiant, having finally made a decision that he feels is the right one, Richard and Lara spend one last bittersweet night together. However, in the cold light of the morning, Richard has a change of heart and the romance of the night before is tarnished. All of this is conveyed practically without words and is a powerfully evocative depiction of indecision, quilt and fear. Similarly, the film’s final shot is a deeply effective conclusion albeit one without many answers.
Beneath the surface of What Richard Did, an ostensibly straightforward drama about guilt and the loss of innocence, is a complexity that defies easy answers and categories. Similarly, the story is told with a subtly that is only matched by some of the performances making the film as thematically rich as it is enthralling. To say too much about the film is to give too much away so suffice it to say that What Richard Did is the second great film from Ireland’s most important living filmmaker.
What Richard Did will be playing at the QFT from Friday 14th Dec to Thursday 20th Dec.