With his third film, Lenny Abrahamson moves from the margins of Irish society to its centre and once again finds plenty of rot and waste beneath the surface.
Having previously explored the heroin wasteland of inner-city Dublin in Adam and Paul (2004) and the isolation and abandonment of rural Ireland in the acclaimed Garage (2007), What Richard Did centres on the titular character and his life amongst his upper-middle class family and peers into Dublin’s D4 area. Richard Karlsen is young, popular and has life all figured out at the age of eighteen; his family dote on him, his friends and rugby teammates look up to and admire him and he’s got his fair share of female attention to choose from in his final summer before starting college. The fact that he picks up his team-mate Conor’s girlfriend as his latest conquest is what leads this film down its dark road and is the first sign of the self-destructive nature of these Celtic cubs.
Unlike Abrahamson’s previous two films, the central protagonist here isn’t so much a casualty of modern Irish society but its worrying consequence. Richard is an intriguing character, moving deftly from charming to arrogant to despicable and back again within a single scene. He’s played brilliantly by newcomer Jack Reynor, a compelling screen presence who manages to make you feel sympathy for a character you shouldn’t really have any sympathy for. Special mention must also go to Roisín Murphy as Lara, the unfortunate object of Richard’s affections. Working for a full year in advance of shooting in improvisational workshops with a largely inexperienced young cast, Abrahamson has cultivated an extremely strong and effective ensemble of actors.
Abrahamson doesn’t stray far from the aesthetic of his previous films: the undercurrent of conflict and unease throughout is nicely contrasted by Richard’s idyllic surroundings; Abrahamson repeatedly shows Richard trudging through beautiful beaches and peaceful family homes. At times these long, languid shots of Richard do become a little overbearing and superfluous, particularly towards the end. The film touches on many aspects of Irish culture, from binge-drinking and free gaffs to issues of class and gender, as well as nods to the casual and vapid nature of many Irish teenage romances that will likely cause a few awkward reminders for audiences at home.
Richard knows what he wants and, unlike many of his peers, he seems to know exactly what to say and how to act in order to get it. This is the conflict at the heart of the film; his actions are selfish and manipulative yet it remains unclear to what extent he is aware of this and of how they will affect others. It’s perhaps a fault of the film that Abrahamson and writer Malcolm Campbell play this ambiguity in his character a little too broadly. Some may feel it’s more a case of indecision than ambiguity but then, maybe that’s exactly the point Abrahamson is making; life goes on and time will heal most wounds and cover up most crimes.
What Richard Did is a compelling, tough film about modern Ireland that perhaps leaves one too many stones unturned, yet still makes such a strong impression that it will stay on in your mind long after the credits roll. It also makes a strong argument for Abrahamson as arguably Ireland’s most important living director and cultural agitator. Highly recommended.