Film of the week: What Richard Did

Straight out of Ireland’s stockbroker belt, Lenny Abrahamson’s latest is both subtle political allegory and powerful moral drama.

Hannah McGill
Updated:

from our February 2013 issue

Spoiler alert: this review gives away a plot twist.

Lenny Abrahamson previously directed the startlingly bleak black comedy Garage (2007) and the mordant two-hander Adam & Paul (2004), both scripted by Mark O’Hallorhan. This solemn urban melodrama, adapted by Malcolm Campbell from Kevin Power’s 2008 novel Bad Day in Blackrock, keeps faith with the sadness of the two previous films but dispenses with their near-surreal humour. Conspicuously talented and socially adept Irish 18-year-old Richard (Jack Reynor) is enjoying a final summer of hedonism before a glowing future of pro rugby and university. But a crush on Lara (Róisín Murphy) derails him; when she displays continued affection for her ex-boyfriend, no Iago is required to stir Richard to dangerous levels of jealousy.

With its beautiful, well-turned-out teens thrust into the midst of messy tragedy, the plotting here rather resembles a very straight-faced episode of a teen soap like Hollyoaks or Skins. There’s also a sobering real-life spur: Power’s novel drew inspiration from the case of Brian Murphy, kicked to death by school friends outside a Dublin nightclub in 2000. Another narrative reference point is the classical noir plot in which overwhelming love for a woman sends a hitherto upstanding man into moral freefall – but Lara isn’t half as knowing as the prototype femme fatale. Indeed, in the early part of the film, she looks to be less powerful than Richard – from a lower social class and (by heavy implication) Catholic to his Protestant, she seems shyly baffled when the golden boy approaches her.

But it’s Richard, childishly unaccustomed to not getting what he wants, who falls head over heels, especially when Lara pays attention to her ex, Conor. Conor too is from a less salubrious side of the tracks, and Catholic; Richard’s friends turn up their noses when persuaded to attend his birthday party in a shabby Gaelic Athletic Association clubhouse. Conor pointedly nicknames Richard ‘super-Rich’, clearly aligning him with the beneficiaries of Ireland’s short-lived economic boom, and likening Richard’s merciless treatment of him to the impact of moneyed self-interest on the poor. The sole offer of help comes to Richard from his Danish father (Denmark helped to bail Ireland out with a €400 million bilateral loan in 2010). Tellingly, the film frames this approach not as a reliable lifeline but as temptation to retreat further from hope; Richard’s father doesn’t help him to do the right thing but encourages him to sidestep justice.

Justice doesn’t lie in wait for Richard as it would in a soap or a noir; indeed, what seems to scare him most is neither what he’s done nor the potential punishment but the possibility that he’ll get away with it. When Richard cries, it’s not just his own culpability that’s breaking his heart but the moral black hole opened by the collusion of those around him: his best friends and girlfriend, who cover for him; his father, who packs him away to the family holiday home like a mafia don arranging a safe house, implying that his shining future shouldn’t be sacrificed for the sake of one such as Conor. Buried under the swagger in Reynor’s skilled performance is the angst of a spoiled child who would like nothing better than the certainty of being told off.

Richard doesn’t kill out of affectless blankness as in The Outsider, nor as a result of some tortured Nietzschean thought experiment as in Crime and Punishment; his is a drunken crime passionel, a rush of blood to the head. But his moral crisis after the event is as minutely examined as that of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, and ultimately as mysteriously inconclusive as that of Camus’s Meursault. Was this ostensibly sweet and charming teenager a time bomb of destructive machismo waiting to blow or an ordinary boy in the wrong place at the wrong moment? Does he, as he suffers and vacillates over what he’s done and what might happen because of it, feel the weight of moral responsibility or just the threat of punishment?

Whatever the film’s level of direct political allegory, it’s an interesting analysis of the idea of responsibility and its performances impress, building from the unobtrusive to the painfully nuanced and intense. The trouble is that the brief running time doesn’t feel brief. As smoothly shot as a classy ad, slow-moving and short on spark, What Richard Did compels with its sensitivity and technical diligence, but crawls along in terms of onscreen energy and narrative tension.

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