Lenny Abrahamson has been quietly going about his business for over a decade. He makes films that slip under the radar; respected and loved by people who have managed to see them. Outside of Ireland, however he is not particularly well known: lagging behind the traditionally canonistic filmmakers like Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan. There is the feeling that Abrahamson is happy to work like this - making the films he wants to make, carving out a very respectable career. This is all going to change however, as his new film What Richard Did will place him in the front tier of European arthouse filmmakers. There is, of course, the danger that exists when a new Irish film gets talked up before release, namely over-hype followed by disappointment. To put this to bed here, What Richard Did is a very good film, although not quite at the level of Garage (his masterpiece in this reviewer’s opinion).
What Richard Did is the story of Richard Karlson and the summer he spends in Dublin after leaving school before heading to university. He is the alpha male in his group of friends, chatting amiably with the lads and the girls and refreshingly having time for the younger guys hanging around who would be bullied nominally in other films of this type. He is the rugby team captain and is from a smart and intellectual family who clearly love him dearly. There is plenty of money, a beach house to visit on a whim and more adulation than he can handle. So what is wrong here?
This film is loosely based on the novel by Kevin Power, Bad Day at Blackrock which itself was a fictionalised account of the killing of Brian Murphy outside Club Anabel in 2001. The title alone is enough to tell you that the central incident leads to catastrophic consequences for Richard and his friends. What is really interesting about this film are the shades of grey in the characterisation here. There are no bad guys, no good guys, just young guys on the verge of adulthood still negotiating their way delicately through life. The incident that happens is similar to others that happen with young people all the time, with the exception here that it goes a step too far. The feelings of some of the parents after the killing of Brian Murphy were that the culprits were perceived to be above the law. This is not addressed directly in the film. However there is a scene where Richard is interviewed at a Garda station. In this scene we just see Richard, the Gardai who are interviewing are not seen, invisible as if they do not exist. This could be interpreted as a comment on the families’ suspicions.
The script by Malcolm Campbell is terrific. All of the dialogue between the young cast feels ‘on the money’ and naturalistic. It is the interaction between the characters that drives the film. Friendships, girlfriends and potential girlfriends, shifting allegiances and angry exchanges are the currency with which the young people trade in here and Campbell nails it all. The music by Stephen Rennicks is spare, beautiful and used strongly. The film is edited and paced with an easy beat that rolls along with the characters themselves. The first half hour is a slow build up of the characters which may be too slow for some but works for me. If there is a problem with this film is that it lags a little before it’s nicely judged climax.
Jack Reynor is excellent as Richard. There is both a star quality and a serious actor here. He is in virtually every scene and carries the film beautifully. The cast is uniformly excellent with Abrahamson getting serious performances from his young actors. There is also a brilliant performance by Lars Mikkelsen as Richard’s father. They have a pivotal scene together in the garden of their home which is very moving and beautifully judged.
All of this brings us back to the hype. What Richard Did is not ‘the most important Irish film this century’ as one of the blurbs on the trailer points out. But it is something which has been rarely seen in Irish film, namely a contemporary drama with confidence and flair and a belief in what it is doing; with a script that is excellent and a very good cast. This should all be celebrated. But what we need is more films developed this way - with cinema releases and critical and commercial acclaim. There is a danger in calling What Richard Did an instant classic and ignoring other Irish films (Pat Collins’ Silence is still for me the best Irish film this year). What is impressive about What Richard Did is that we have another Irish film to challenge that status. For our industry this can only be a good thing. And for what has been a really good year for Irish film that is refreshing to be able to say.