What Richard Did, not to be confused with What Maisie Knew, is a tender, concisely written, sensitively acted and carefully directed film from Ireland about the devastating consequences of a senseless act of violence on the life of an otherwise gentle boy with a promising future. It doesn’t have big stars or an extravagant advertising budget, but it’s so much better than nine out of 10 other films you will see this year that you risk a big loss by overlooking it.
Richard, played by an incredibly impressive actor named Jack Reynor, is a carefree 18-year-old Dublin schoolboy enjoying one final carousing lark of a summer with his schoolmates before college begins in the fall. Richard is a born leader—handsome, funny, popular, a rugby team star, babe magnet and desirable friend to old mates and newcomers alike. This is the idyllic summer in the green lushness of Ireland when the splendor in the grass ends and the cruelty of adulthood begins. What Richard does first is fall for a smart, pretty girl named Lara (Roisin Murphy), whose continuing friendship with moody classmate and ex-boyfriend Conor (Sam Keeley) drives the usually easygoing golden boy into a jealousy he can’t control. One night at a crowded house party, Richard drinks too much after uneasily watching Lara’s show of guileless but annoying affection after uneasily watching Lara’s show of guileless but annoying affection for Conor, and a donnybrook breaks out unexpectedly, leaving an emotional scar that will change the lives of Richard and his friends forever.
The carefully calibrated screenplay by Malcolm Campbell, based on Kevin Power’s acclaimed novel Bad Day in Blackrock, subtly catalogs the aftermath of this reckless mistake of bad judgment with compassion and truth. The gifted, grounded and self-assured director Lenny Abrahamson juxtaposes the darkness of the soul with the torment of the heart as Richard goes through every anguished stage of guilt, remorse and conscience. Do the right thing, go to the authorities and risk destroying your future? Or form an alliance with your friends and allies that will result in an endless tangle of secrets, lies and sleepless nights? Meanwhile, the film also raises a provocative question about parenting, as Richard’s father (Lars Mikkelsen) faces his own dilemma. Can a parent continue to love a son unconditionally after losing all respect for him? Wrestling with the responsibility of giving the wrong advice to a child in trouble, he just walks away in despair.
One caveat: like so many films from Ireland, the thick accents and Gaelic slang are sometimes so hard to unknot that great sections of dialogue are rendered incomprehensible. But this is a film of such rare moral decency and emotional honesty that it would take more than a thick brogue to weaken its impact. This is due in no small part to the wonderful cast, especially Jack Reynor, born in America but raised and trained in Ireland. After the film premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, I predicted he would end up in Hollywood at the mercy of various agents, managers and makeover artists. Sure enough, he’s already working with Mark Wahlberg in Michael Bay’s fourth brainless Transformers epic. So catch him now, in What Richard Did, while he’s still unspoiled. As a boy whose only previous crisis was accidentally drowning a pet gerbil while trying to give it a bath, his Richard is suddenly plunged into a real tragedy no one his age should ever experience. In one of the most wrenching performances I have seen on the screen in some time, it’s thrilling to watch a young actor with passion and charisma explore so many avenues of damage control with so much depth, allowing the viewer to grapple with an unsettling variety of personal emotions. You may be shocked by your own reactions to “what Richard did,” but you won’t soon forget the movie in which he did them.
WHAT RICHARD DID
WRITTEN BY Malcolm Campbell and Kevin Power
DIRECTED BY Lenny Abrahamson
STARRING Jack Reynor, Roisin Murphy and Sam Keeley
RUNNING TIME: 88 mins.
RATING: 3.5/4 Stars