Thursday, May 02, 2013

What Richard Did – Lenny Abrahamson

What Richard Did (Lenny Abrahamson – Ireland) 88 minutes

Tone and register. Those are the two things that most bedevil Irish films and the things that ultimately determine their credibility. Too often, an Irish (fiction) film can fail because it just doesn’t sound, feel or look right. There are various reasons for this – a directorial sensibility that doesn’t always manage to free itself from the influence of television, a relatively small pool of actors (no matter how good many of them are), sometimes having to rely for commercial reasons on imported actors who struggle with the accent, not to mention the various constraints of budget and production values. Even the best filmmakers can find it difficult to maintain consistency in the way they portray Ireland on screen – a director as adept as John Boorman went from getting Ireland exactly right in The General to the rather more jarring A Tiger’s Tail. This is what makes Lenny Abrahamson particularly impressive; as well as being an excellent filmmaker in his own right, his films have consistently rung true, in wildly different social settings – working class Dublin junkies in Adam & Paul; the rural midlands in Garage; and now, in his third film, What Richard Did, the South County Dublin bourgeoisie.

The film is loosely based, by way of Kevin Power’s novel Bad Day at Blackrock, on the Annabel’s manslaughter case in 2000, in which 18-year-old Brian Murphy died from his injuries after a night-club brawl with rugby players from a rival private school. (This is not giving too much away, as it is implicit in the title.) The hero of the film is Richard Karlsen (Jack Reynor), a popular, successful jock with an eye on medical school, who has it all – he is the darling only son of his parents (Lorraine Pilkington and Lars – brother of Mads – Mikkelsen) and manages to prise away Lara (Róisín Murphy), the girlfriend of one of his friends Conor (Sam Keeley). At first there appears to be no fall-out but that does not last long, and the inevitable breaking point arrives.

The ‘SoCo’ milieu Abrahamson portrays is one many in Ireland love to hate but he and screenwriter Malcolm Campbell wisely avoid casting them in an egregiously unsympathetic light – the odd social snobbery aside, the kids are not particularly unpleasant (Richard, in fact, is the very opposite, being exceptionally generous to younger kids in his wider social circle). It casts the drama in greater relief when the upheaval comes and it also perfectly captures the sense of the gilded cocoon the kids inhabit. When four youngsters were convicted in connection with the killing of Brian Murphy (convictions that were later overturned on appeal), the prosecuting counsel remarked that not one but five lives were ruined by the killing. It was, as many pointed out at the time, a sympathetic encomium rarely extended to less well-off perpetrators of violent crime. What Richard Did doesn’t tackle the subject matter with the same attitude, but it does shape the drama’s contours, suggesting how high the stakes are for the teenagers involved.

Like Abrahamson’s previous films, the central character (or characters, in the case of Adam & Paul) is, despite his manifold social relationships and apparent contentedness, ultimately a solitary figure. Jack Reynor is excellent as Richard – a beaming, boyish ox of a teen, with a facility for charm and who always has the right word for the smallest of social interactions. The smaller roles are all deftly peopled too – there is just enough information sprinkled about to bring them to life, a tribute to the work of both Abrahamson and Campbell and also Nathan Nugent’s splendidly economic editing. The moral quandary at the centre of the film reminds one of the early Michael Haneke film Benny’s Video, while the low-key aesthetic (with a preference for natural lighting) is similar to recent German social dramas, by the likes of Henning Winckler, Christoph Hochhäusler or Hans-Christian Schmid. At a time when Irish filmmaking is beginning to bristle with a confidence and assuredness it has had only intermittently in the past, Abrahamson is the best of a talented bunch of young-ish directors. His reputation is also beginning to spread beyond Ireland, suggesting he has many good years ahead of him.