Lenny Abrahamson has built a solid reputation on being a dark and complex filmmaker. Adam and Paul was the story of two junkies attempting to negotiate the treacherous streets of Dublin, whilst Garage followed a petrol station attendant’s struggle with the no less tricky terrain of small-town Ireland. Initially, What Richard Did seems like an unusual choice but as the film progresses his relationship with the material becomes abundantly clear. What Richard Did is the depiction of an individual trapped in an insular community, albeit a privileged and wealthy one. Dublin’s Southside has been parodied for so long it is now simply easier to see it as an accent, an affectation, a defunct way of living that disappeared in the last few days of the tiger. It is to Abrahamson’s credit that he never throws his characters away on easy laughs, nor does he attempt to construct a mind-numbing morality tale based on excess. His singular vision prevents What Richard Did becoming tawdry, tabloid material, another tale of teenagers ‘up to no good’, and allows it to develop into a meditative, melancholy dissection of growing up and what that exactly means.
Richard is a rugby star, a boy with enough charisma to power a presidential campaign, and an all-round handsome bastard. He says things like “Failure’s not an option” and “I want to make myself proud”, without even the slightest trace of cynicism. He is a walking slogan, a beefed-up, brawny rugby-bot who connotes power and prestige simply by shrugging his shoulders. Richard is also a top bloke who does sound things like preventing drunk, underage girls getting raped and befriending sad youngsters who do magic. Unfortunately, Richard suffers from a serious lapse in perfection after being mildly provoked by a love rival and the results of his actions are what dominate the majority of the film.
Abrahamson never fully settles the question of whether rugby schools breed arrogance and create a pushy masculinity that can’t possibly survive in the real world, but the implication is there. The scenes of fraternal love are so powerful you can almost hear the towels snapping in the changing-rooms. Yet it is difficult not to sympathise with Richard, to feel his plunging terror as the life he imagined for himself disintegrates after a millisecond of stupidity. Jack Reynor delivers a nuanced performance, both mature and intuitive. He expertly showcases Richard’s contradictions, the terror behind the joie de vivre, the utter disbelief that someone may not want him. Roisin Murphy as his love interest is aloof and distant, yet interesting enough to warrant both Richard’s and the audience’s attention. The film illustrates first love not only in its innocence, but its viciousness, spitefulness and possessiveness. The young cast are uniformly excellent, delivering convincing supporting performances that don’t rely on vowels to do the work for them. If you are in need of hilarious DORT speak, do look elsewhere.
Ultimately, what Abrahamson captures most eloquently is the difficulty of growing up. In a memorable scene, Richard goes drinking with a group a few years his junior. He is worshipped, adored for his status and easy charm. Later, he wanders alone through an anonymous UCD. Richard is fighting not for his reputation and dignity, but his glory days which may have past him. What Richard Did attests that living on the Southside isn’t all espresso machines, plasma screens and driving your SUV to your holiday home. Abrahamson has shown a very serious side to this once maligned subject matter and that alone is deserving of praise. Watch the trailer now on MEG.ie. In Irish cinemas 05 October 2012.