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Non-Review Review: What Richard Did

The latest film from Lenny Abrahamson is a solid slow boil moral and psychological drama. It treads well-worn ground, exploring the relationship between guilt and entitlement, but does so in a relatively charming way, navigated by Abrahamson’s solid direction and a great central performance from Jack Reynor. However, it’s hard not see this as a variation on a familiar story, one we’ve seen rendered in an American and a British context quite often. Malcolm Campbell’s overly melodramatic script never quite manages to ground to film in a particularly Irish setting, despite the posh Blackrock background and the occasionally recognisable landmark. Even the title change, eschewing the novel’s Bad Day in Blackrock for a more generic What Richard Did seems to try to broaden the scope of the film, losing a lot of the more potentially fascinating avenues that could be explored.

More than his ego is bruised…

The Richard of the title is the “school captain” of his posh private school. From the way his friends joke about it in the opening scene, it seems he values the symbolic armband quite a bit. He’s charming and sophisticated. He’s capable of dealing with his friends’ parents or fending off would-sexual-predators from his group. He knows everybody by name, and always offers a firm handshake or a hug. He’s far too smart to ever be overtly mean to anybody, but there’s a clear sense of superiority there, of entitlement and of pride.

The movie spends a great deal of the first act introducing us to Richard. His parents adore him. Hishome and school life are so incestuous that his rugby coach pops around for dinner. He’s nice to the geeks. He hangs out with his two close friends, but feels an obligation “to be social.”Even drinking with his mates, he’s generally level-headed, taking the team down to his family’s country house for a team-building exercise. He knows the local bar owner by name, and promises not to let any of his younger team mates drink. After the gang leave, he’s even conscientious enough to tidy up for his parents, so they don’t find it in a state.

A bit Rich for my blood…

The problem is that audiences are already familiar with Richard. In a way, What Richard Did feels like an attempt to tell a Bret Easton Ellis story in an Irish setting. It also evokes memories of at least two of Woody Allen’s more recent films, as the rugby captain finds his sense of status and entitlement wrestling with his guilt for an unspeakable act. We already know that this isn’t the real Richard, if only because he’s a familiar archetype. “I always thought it was a good thing to be ambitious,” he moans at one point in the film, and we’re presented with a very slight variation of the young-yuppie-as-wannabe-ubermensch.

To be fair, Jack Reynor is great as Richard. There are moments when you can really see Richard’s inner “alpha male plus”bubbling away beneath the surface, as he fails to deal with the fact he might be denied something he deems is rightfully his. Reynor has a charming manner that helps a great deal, but he also does an excellent job at trying to draw some sense of pathos out of the character. Reynor manages to give Richard a significant amount of depth, and he generally does so without wallowing in the screenplay’s melodrama. Reynor manages to make the character intriguing and compelling, anchoring the film, even when the script calls for a high-drama freak-out that seems like it might have come from an evening soap opera.

Naked ambition…

People shout and they cry and they whine and they seem to practically breath angst. The script is almost afraid to let any plot point skip by under the radar. When Richard moans “I can’t believe this is happening to me” the script actually has another character point out how self-centred that statement is, as if worried the audience might miss that incredibly unsubtle moment of character development. Abrahamson does a great job filming the movie, keeping things on the boil and keeping us engaged, but it seems like the screenplay is occasionally working against him.

There are moments when it seems like What Richard Did might have something to say about the Irish character in particular, rather than covering familiar ground. Richard’s poorly-masked disdain for the “$%^&in’ culchie” on his team could have offered a nice vehicle for social commentary. There’s a nice moment where Richard drags his posh friends to this colleague’s birthday, only for them to scowl at the fact it’s held in a GAA hall. (In contrast to Richard’s lavish beach house.) Richard can’t stand the guy’s “Celtic Mist” Irish folk songs, but we get a nice shot of the team together singing a distinctly English anthem.

Dad’s little wonder boy…

Our national identity has always been a massively thorny issue, and the legacies of British rule still simmer away beneath the surface. That divide – Catholic and Protestant, inside the Pale and outside the Pale – is only fleetingly touched on by the script. It doesn’t feel like it’s aggressive enough in exploring that rather obvious angle, but still teases it. Indeed, it almost seeming to pull its punches in the way that it explores the entitled private-school background that produced Richard, and how he relates to those people who come from outside it.

The film only shows flashes of the gulf between those inside and those outside, and the class divide that exists even within the rugby team itself. Richard is, for example, somewhat dismissively referred to as “super Rich” by the resident “culchie”, as much a jab at his family’s financial status as a play on his status as uncrowned school prince. However, despite hinting at these fascinating (and uniquely Irish) concerns, the screenplay refuses to develop them in any substantial way.

Life’s a beach…

It seems like the screenplay pulls its punches just a little bit too much, and it’s never as vicious as it could be in its handling of Richard’s morality. It feels a bit soft around the edges. There’s none of the raw anger or contempt that drove the best of those international explorations of entitlement and guilt. The film doesn’t seem quite sure on whether it wants to condemn Richard or portray him as almost tragic. That arguably leaves it open to the audience, but the problem is that it prevents the movie from really diving too deeply into the questions that it raises. It feels strangely superficial in its handling of admittedly touchy subjects.

I probably sound like I’m being a bit harsh. To be fair, it’s a perfectly fine piece of film-making, but it’s never truly exceptional. Even measured against some of Abrahamson’s past work it feels fairly shallow. Jack Reynor’s central performance really is quite wonderful, and Abrahamson is a more than capable director, but What Richard Did feels like it suffers from a lack of what its lead has in abundance: ambition.

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