What Richard Did: Film Review

What Richard Did - Film Still - H 2012
We need to talk about Richard.

Lenny Abrahamson's classy Irish suspense drama explores the aftershocks of a lethal act of violence on Dublin's gilded youth.

Kids killing kids is an evergreen cinematic theme, all too often inspired by real events. After the chilling horrors of Larry Clark’s Bully, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, this beautifully rendered Irish drama treats similar subject matter with a more humane and unsensational eye. The violence here is minimal, intended to hurt rather than kill, though the aftershocks on a whole community prove equally tragic.

Straying from the shabby working-class Dublin of his previous features, Garage and Adam & Paul, director Lenny Abrahamson locates What Richard Did firmly among the wealthy elites of contemporary Ireland. It is based on Kevin Power’s 2008 debut novel, Bad Day in Blackrock, which fictionalized the notorious true case of a group of privileged Dublin schoolboys who beat an 18-year-old man to death outside a nightclub in August 2000. Already acclaimed domestically following festival screenings in Toronto and London, this superior suspense yarn should attract a connoisseur crowd when it opens in Britain in January. Similar critical buzz and niche appeal are likely to follow in other markets.

An attractive young cast and elegant digital cinematography lend Abrahamson’s polished low-budget feature the glossy sheen of an upmarket commercial, even as the story dips into some very dark places. A relative screen newcomer with an easy magnetism that perfectly suits his character, Jack Reynor plays Richard, an alpha-male jock whose good looks and athletic physique have made him the star of his school rugby football team. With a loving family and a regular entourage of hedonistic friends, Richard is spending the lazy summer between high school and university attending an endless round of beach parties, boozy banter and casual sex.

A dutiful and responsible young man, Richard is always ready to law down the law when predatory male friends get too pushy with young women. But he is not quite the gallant charmer he appears, especially after his new girlfriend Lara (Róisín Murphy) spends an evening innocently chatting with her ex, Conor (Sam Keeley). A brutal, drunken assault follows that leaves Richard facing possible manslaughter charges – but only if he turns himself in to the police. With the assailant still at large, and the small handful of witnesses unwilling to speak out, guilt and suspicion begin to seep into the wider community.

One particularly telling exchange between Richard and his father Peter (Lars Mikkelsen) offers a pointed insight into the uneasy balance between paternal love and moral duty. Mikkelsen’s presence underlines the sense that What Richard Did owes as much to classic Scandinavian drawing-room drama as to Irish cinema tradition. There are distant echoes here of Thomas Vinterberg’s terrific new Danish thriller The Hunt, starring Mikkelson's superstar brother Mads, which also examines the effect of a moral outrage on a sleepy middle-class suburb.

Grounded in excellent, highly naturalistic performances, What Richard Did is a thriller about a violent crime with admirably little interest in either violence or crime. A more didactic, schematic film-maker might have exploited the story’s upscale social milieu to score some obvious points about the moral bankruptcy and latent savagery of the ruling class. Thankfully, Abrahamson takes a more nuanced and non-judgmental approach, showing instead how split-second mistakes become lasting tragedies, and how guilt ripples out through family and friends.

Such subtlety is undoubtedly one strength of Abrahamson’s film, but arguably also a weakness. As Richard weighs up his terrible actions, agonizing about whether to confess or play innocent, the dramatic intensity starts to dissipate. We see the messy social aftershocks of his reckless rage, but not the psychological torment beneath. While this is clearly a deliberate aesthetic choice, it risks underplaying a powerful story. But even if What Richard Did is sometimes a little too understated for its own good, this is still a classy piece of work which convincingly captures the emotionally complex, morally murky texture of real life.

Venue: London press screening, Nov. 7
Production companies: Element Pictures, Irish Film Board
Producers: Ed Guiney
Cast: Jack Reynor, Róisín Murphy, Sam Keeley, Lars Mikkelsen
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Malcolm Campbell, based on Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day in Blackrock
Cinematography: David Grennan
Editor: Nathan Nugent
Production designer: Stephanie Clerkin
Music: Stephen Rennicks
Sales company: Protagonist Pictures
Rating TBC, 84 minutes