Overview: During his summer between college and university, middle class teenager, Richard, makes a mistake that threatens to destroy his life. 2012; New Video Group; Unrated; 88 minutes.
What Richard does: This perturbing moral drama from the acclaimed Irish director of Frank, Adam And Paul and Garage, is loosely based on Kevin Power’s 2008 novel, Bad Day In Blackrock. Not to be confused with the 1955 Spencer Tracy film Bad Day At Blackrock, Power’s novel shares similarities with a real life event involving Irish teenager Brian Murphy. Although not a fictionalised account, viewers not already familiar with this news story are advised to look it up only after seeing the film. As the cryptic title suggests, What Richard Did is enhanced by the mystery of what Richard (Jack Reynor) will eventually do. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s unveiling of these events is remarkably understated and they appear entirely plausible. As a result his drama challenges expectations and remains deeply troubling.
That the consequences of Richard’s actions are only fully comprehended the morning after, magnifies the gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’; the clock cannot be turned back and Richard must face up to the reality of his much altered future. The cost of one simple mistake seems insurmountable and, in the wake of this panic, Abrahamson’s slow and deliberate style momentarily gives way to bursts of action before settling into a steady and careful portrayal of Richard’s internal moral debate.
Unexceptional youth: This first feature length screenplay from British television writer Malcolm Campbell is intelligent and astute, introducing us to a group of young people who have everything to lose. At eighteen and with ready access to his parent’s beach house, Richard is well mannered, independent and, very obviously, middle class. He knows how to cook a good steak and is a respected member of the rugby team. Life ahead seems littered with opportunity, professional rugby and full time education. Richard is the polar opposite of cinema’s typical squandered youth.
Swerving common stereotypes, Campbell’s characters are not delinquents, yobs, or loutish sports players. Instead a party at Richard’s beach house is spent simply chatting over a few beers. He’s levelheaded, revered by his peer group and looks out for younger members of his sports team. But Richard is not perfect and Campbell slowly and carefully reveals Richard’s not uncommon flaws. It’s honest and persuasive writing, the unexceptional traits of these young people and the plausibility of their actions combining to make What Richard Did a sobering comment on society.
Former innocence: Campbell’s penetrating screenplay is punctuated with references to childhood. Whether it’s in the exchange of childhood stories between Richard and girlfriend Lara (Roisin Murphy), an agonising plea beneath the old treehouse, or the copy of The Hobbit Richard reads to distract himself from regret, these reminders of former innocence lend a delicate subtext to What Richard Did. Richard’s actions – a single event that forces a harsh, swift change from boy to man – amplify the gap between childish hopes and adult realities. The cinematography by David Grennan captures this torment in an often sombre palate of grey and blue that lends a depressing realism to the visuals, while the beauty of Ireland’s landscape under early morning skies and pale pink sunset evokes a natural, melancholic beauty in lost youth.
Natural performances: Abrahamson lingers on both silent contemplation and scenes of isolated, piercing anguish. Actor Jack Reynor proves himself adept at both, marking himself out as a rising star and dragging audiences deep into the darkest moments of Richard’s guilt. Reynor and Lars Mikkelson (as Richard’s supportive father) excel in a gut-wrenching scene of mutual agony and despair. It’s this kind of uncomfortable viewing that gives What Richard Did its staying power, provoking audience contemplation even after credits roll. It’s a testament to Reynor that such a privileged character, who could easily become obnoxious or unpleasant, remains likeable and pitiable to the end.