What Richard Did Review
What Richard Did is a quietly devastating study of a boy confronting the gap between who he thought he was and who he proves to be.
What Richard Did is a slow burning endurance test that is simultaneously unrelenting and spellbinding. I can't say that I “liked” it per se, in fact, coming away from watching it I found myself sighing with relief – which isn't usually a good sign. However, it's not an easy film to dislike in retrospect. It's tough and quite bleak, but engaging at the same time. Of course, when a movie is perpetually thumping it's hairy, meaty fists on your emotions for the best part of an hour and a half, it's to be expected that you are in some ways glad it's over. That's exactly the case with What Richard Did, and it's only after several hours of mulling the movie over that I found it's one that's not going to shift easily. That can be a good or bad thing in my experience, and I have to say, as yet, I am undecided on this complex and altogether understated drama.
The story follows Richard, a bright and popular teenager in Dublin's middle class suburbia, who does well at school and plays rugby. Richard, despite his extremely well-to-do lifestyle in which he holds parties for his friends at his easy-going – dare I say “hippy” – parents' huge beach house just outside Dublin, is innocently unaware of his extremely middle class standing in society. He's very popular with his friends, and seems to be comfortable being the centre of attention.
Thing's begin to change in his circle of friends when he starts to fall for Lara, a sweet and pretty girl who happens to be going out with his friend and rugby team-mate, Connor. For all his honesty and openness, Richard seems unable to stifle his emotions for Lara, despite knowing that it would potentially destroy his relationship with Connor. It's during this shift in tone of the movie that we begin to see a wholly different side to Richard, and one that we don't particularly like. That being said, who can honestly hold their hand up and say that teenage romance is something that any of us ever truly understood at the time? Well certainly not me... At that age, I found girls confusing and difficult to understand - why do they need a support group every time they go to the bathroom? And why when they get together in groups larger than four do they start to sound like seaguls whelping louder than any reason could ever call for?
So I found myself being slightly forgiving of the pair when they deceive Connor and get together behind his back. Perhaps this forgiveness is made easier by the fact that we aren't “present” when Connor finds out – we're teleported a few months down the line when the truth has already been outed, the dust has started to settle, and we find ourselves following Richard and Lara as a couple. They turn up at the park to meet with friends, and it's clear that Connor hasn't taken the situation well. Lara attempts to comfort him, and Richard does not like that.
It's the intensity of Jack Reynor's performance as Richard that makes this movie completely believable. We observe him as he finds himself mistaking Lara's genuinely kind-hearted nature towards Connor for love, and we see the seed of jealousy planted that will eventually consume him completely. Despite Lara being honest and open as ever with him, it's impossible for him to see past the situation at hand, and as time goes on, Richard becomes so preoccupied with his own jealousy that he foolishly begins to alienate himself not just from Lara, but from his friends too.
When the group are at a house-party somewhere in the posh parts of Dublin's suburbia one night, things take a dramatic turn for the worst, and the plot grows darker by the second. We're helpless onlookers as we observe these previously happy-go-lucky and somewhat privileged teenagers tumble into a bleak and unforgiving reality that will change their lives forever.
Performances are what makes this movie feel so real, and equally what makes it such difficult viewing. Jack Reynor is brilliantly believable as Richard, and opposite him Roisin Murphy does an excellent job as the meek yet emotionally blossoming Lara. Some other stand out performances come from Sam Keely who plays the troubled Connor, and Lars Mikkelson (yep, Mads Mikkelson's brother) as Richard's easy-going, Guardian reading father.
Director Lenny Abrahamson, whose 2004 Irish comedy/drama Adam & Paul was a huge success with critics, maintains his gritty and realistic view of Dublin here, but the difference is that What Richard Did is utterly and completely devoid of comedy. His unashamed boldness behind the lens is just as present here as it was in Adam & Paul, having no fear whatsoever to maintain extremely close-up shots for seemingly inappropriate periods of time. It seems a little weird at first, and a little heavy handed perhaps, but you soon realise he's applying this in-your-face style to try and engage you with the emotion of his characters. Though it's a slightly obvious and you could say clumsy approach, it's effective to a degree. If I'm completely honest, I find that particular style of direction a little off-putting, but it's done here in a solid and consistent way, so it stops jarring so much after a while.
Abrahamson obviously has a very close relationship with the setting for this altogether dark and bleak tale, and you'd be forgiven for taking a wild guess that he perhaps has had some experience not dissimilar from that of some of the characters on show here. If he hasn't then you have to take your hat off to him for being a brave enough director to tackle such visceral material, and to do it in such a bold and in your face kind of way.
When all is said and done, this movie is not a bad movie. It's actually a very well shot, well scripted and extremely well acted movie. There's nothing really wrong with it at all. It's a little difficult to really narrow down what it's message is though, and I'm afraid I was unable to just let that go. I couldn't help myself from looking for the sub-text in What Richard Did, but as I'm starting to realise, I just don't really think there was one. It's starting to feel very much like a movie without a message, but one that says a lot nonetheless. You don't get a sense that you've been anything more than a fly on the wall of a very sinister and altogether bleak story as it played out. I can completely live with that. So putting my finger on exactly why I'm writing this review from arguably quite a negative stand point is tough.
I can only hazard a guess that it's my own fault. The way the movie is presented fooled me into thinking that there was a message here that I wasn't getting, that I should look a little harder and then I'll find it. But as I said, I couldn't really find one. In fact, the movie's title might have given a lot more away in that sense. It refers to a specific event, and one that I'm inevitably going to discover as the movie goes on. It tells me that I'm going to be passive in this process of discovery, so I should just sit back, be quiet and stop looking for something that may or may not be there. I think not having realised that sooner might possibly have marred my opinion slightly of Lenny Abrahamsons very personal and private movie. I'm not usually guilty of this kind of thing, but now I realise that perhaps I'm all too quick to scathe those who don't watch Terry Gilliam movies “correctly”.
On the whole, this a movie that's got a lot going for it if you're capable of being engaged as a by-stander. If I was to watch it over again, which I struggle to believe I will, I would probably watch it very differently.
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