Review: What Richard Did (2012)

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Cast: Jack Reynor, Roisin Murphy, Sam Keeley
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Country: Ireland
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: What Richard Did is now open in limited release, and is also available on VOD

It’s been a long wait for fans of Irish art film. In 2007, Garage was released: the second film by Lenny Abrahamson—who had debuted three years earlier with the acclaimed Adam & Paul—and arguably one of the finest works of indigenous cinema until then produced. A stark rejection of the archetypal view of “the emerald isle”, it was simultaneously a lugubrious lamentation of the decline of rural Ireland and a sharp deconstruction of the country’s traditional filmic image as postulated in the likes of The Quiet Man and dozens more. Such is Abrahamson’s cinematic register: he is at heart an iconoclast, given to tearing down established conventions and revealing the true depth of human drama at work beneath the outmoded clichés so familiar to us all.

As much as it excels as a piece of technical filmmaking, this is a success first and foremost in terms of its unrelenting adherence to the truth of contemporary youth, capturing the rhythm of its central generation in a way worthy of comparison to The Graduate before it.

Premiering at TIFF just last month, Abrahamson’s latest film What Richard Did continues this re-evaluation of Irish life; where Adam & Paul presented a revised and realist rendition of inner-city Dublin, and Garage explored the reality of the rural landscape, here Abrahamson—working with writer Malcolm Campbell—turns to the culture of youth, his eponymous protagonist the attractive, popular, rugby-playing hub of his circle of friends. He is played by Jack Reynor, who channels the mannerisms of the popular guy stock character of television sitcoms with much added depth of humanity. You will recognise him. You know him in real life. What Reynor does is to inject that popular, oft-perceived image with an entrancing humility; relatively affluent, charismatic, confident, he could be an easy character to hate, yet in the kindliness and compassion he exudes it is abundantly evident that this is a good person. And then, of course, the title comes into effect.

It’s inevitably hyperbolic to describe any single artwork as definitive; yet scarcely has a film so comprehensively captured a generation, in all its beauty and ugliness, as here. Abrahamson and Campbell’s characters might provide representational functions, being at times ciphers for grand thematic ideas, but they are no less real and relatable human beings; for all the wider things it has to say about modern life, this is drama of the classical variety, trading in grandiose emotion and gargantuan moral complexity. It’s no great surprise to learn that the cast were selected long before their roles were yet firmly written, before even the story was fully devised: it follows them, not they it, the film attuned to the veracity of modern teen life with the firmest of grips on the lingo and relationships of youth. As much as it excels as a piece of technical filmmaking, this is a success first and foremost in terms of its unrelenting adherence to the truth of contemporary youth, capturing the rhythm of its central generation in a way worthy of comparison to The Graduate before it.

It’s as much a film about masculinity as about anything else, Richard’s position right at the precipice of adulthood, right about to become a man proper, making his a prime study of the very constitution of manhood. Reynor carries this adeptly and affectingly: here shrouded in Abrahamson’s shadows, there cast in the basking glows of his light, he makes heart-wrenching emotion of every moment, inviting us to feel as much as to see the burden of having done what Richard did.

There’s a remarkable scene in Garage where Josie, the bumbling petrol station attendant at the film’s centre, awkwardly hears the woes of a local man whose wife and son have left him. Amidst an agonising outpour of sheer pain, a futile yearning for some human contact, all Josie can do is smile and nod. It’s one of the most powerful, poignant depictions of Irish masculinity a camera has captured, and its memory hangs heavy over What Richard Did. It’s as much a film about masculinity as about anything else, Richard’s position right at the precipice of adulthood, right about to become a man proper, making his a prime study of the very constitution of manhood. Reynor carries this adeptly and affectingly: here shrouded in Abrahamson’s shadows, there cast in the basking glows of his light, he makes heart-wrenching emotion of every moment, inviting us to feel as much as to see the burden of having done what Richard did. Among the capacious handful of truly brilliant scenes in the film is one which sees Lars Mikkelsen as Richard’s father confronting him on his actions. It’s a most pristine encapsulation of the father-son dichotomy, a painfully recognisable and almost unfathomably true-to-life representation of how men relate, carried superfluously by two of the finest performances likely to be seen this year.

As much as its dialogue’s truthfulness and the lifelikeness of its relationships make harrowingly proximate the story of What Richard Did, Abrahamson is a hugely cinematic presence, taking the evening skies of his locations, the sprawling verdancy of his landscapes, the shadow-pocked faces of his cast, and filling the screen with the manifold meanings they convey. The latter half of his film is an elliptical haze of undiluted emotion, an expressive fusion of David Grennan’s gorgeous cinematography and Stephen Rennicks’ empathic soundtrack, as though the inner turmoil of this character has burst forth and stained the world around with the imprints of its agonies. This is no easy film to watch, but the searing abrasion of its emotion is a testament to how well-equipped Abrahamson is to use the power of cinema to make manifest the specific mood of a moment. Most films show the pain of a character; What Richard Did provides it, provokes it within the audience too. From the wince-inducing moment we learn the title’s significance, to the perfect conclusion wherein we recall it again, we are caught in the throes of a most gripping question. It’s not so much a matter of what Richard did as what any of us might do, as what we ourselves could be capable of.

[notification type=”star”]96/100 ~ MASTERFUL. This is no easy film to watch, but the searing abrasion of its emotion is a testament to how well-equipped Abrahamson is to use the power of cinema to make manifest the specific mood of a moment. Most films show the pain of a character; What Richard Did provides it, provokes it within the audience too.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.