The Best Films You’ve Never Seen #2: What Richard Did
In this semi-regular feature, I discuss some of the best films which had low box office earnings, found little audience, or have otherwise been forgotten about over time.
Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank may be this blog’s most talked about film. Since I saw it last year, I’ve done my best to recommend it to everybody I know, and encourage every reader to try and find it. I even gave it the prize for Best Film at last year’s End of Year Awards. After seeing Frank for the first time, I instantly knew I had to track down more of Abrahamson’s work.
Lenny Abrahamson is not the most prolific director. Since 2004, he’s only made five films, with his fourth being Frank and his fifth feature Room just recently premiering at Telluride Film Festival. Directorial debut Adam and Paul is a witty, bleak, and very low budget black comedy about two heroin addicts. Next came Garage in 2007, which is perhaps even less well known than Adam and Paul, but did achieve acclaim and awards in Abrahamson’s native Ireland. However, it his 2013 teen drama What Richard Did that is a real standout gem, and one of the most criminally underseen films of the last decade.
From the opening scenes of summer holiday bliss as Richard (Jack Reynor) and his friends drive around town, go to the beach, and start drinking, What Richard Did lays its claim as one of the most realistic depictions of teenagers ever seen. The acting, from Reynor and the supporting cast of unknowns and non-professionals, is beautifully judged and enjoyable (there’s little action, but you find yourself happy just hanging out with these characters), while Malcolm Campbell’s script is well observed.
The first half of the film depicts only the faintest idea of a plot, instead focusing on the character of Richard. He’s a slightly unusual, contradictory young man. On the one hand, he’s clearly popular (hanging out with a large group of friends, key member of the rugby team), and seems to be the funny and charming member of the group, yet we see him as lacking confidence and harbouring resentment at others. At parties, he sits alone outside, looking glum. In the pub, he watches bitterly as Conor (Sam Keeley, ambiguously dickish) serenades his crush Lara (Róisín Murphy). Richard is fascinating because he’s very hard to see through or predict, often remaining blank faced at even the worst of times. When he does let his emotions out, it can be both terrifying and heartbreaking.
The real story of the film comes after Richard successfully asks Lara out, and the two begin dating. This is certainly the nicest part of the film, as we see the tentative first steps of the relationship. I have to assume some of these parts were improvised by the actors or heavily autobiographical; they’re so naturally performed, I struggle to believe they could be completely scripted. If so, Campbell, Reynor and Murphy all did a phenomenal job. Given the very nature of the film, we know Richard and Lara’s bliss can’t last long, and Richard’s previous behaviour flares up with the reappearance of Conor.
Lara and Conor can’t help but seem a little too close, and Richard begins to get jealous. There’s an excruciating scene as a tearful Conor speaks in private to Lara and Richard tries to join them. It’s brutal in just how uncomfortable and relatable it feels. Things come to a head one fateful night at a party. Richard acts moodily all night, and his mood only gets worse when Conor shows up. Accidentally kicked out of the party, Richard broods and eventually drags Lara away from Conor. An argument breaks out. Conor punches Richard in the face. Richard’s friends step in to help. Then, in one shocking moment, the entire dynamic of the film is changed.
It’s no spoiler to state that Richard commits an act which turns his entire life upside down. Cleverly, Abrahamson doesn’t linger or emphasise the moment, making it all the more shocking when it turns out to have serious repercussions for Richard and his friends. The atmosphere of the film quickly shifts from the free spirited vibes of summer to the lingering dread of summer’s end. Richard visibly changes, becoming quieter, and less confident, occasionally prone to scary outbursts. It’s an outstanding performance by then-newcomer Jack Reynor, portraying every self-doubt and contradiction and fear in Richard’s head.
With even the blankest stare or the quietest speech, he tells you everything you need to know. The performance received little awards buzz, presumably due to its tiny release; had What Richard Did played to wider audiences, Reynor surely would have received more nominations. It’s no surprise to learn that Reynor was cast in mainstream affair like Transformers 4 and Macbeth on the back of his performance here.
Though Reynor is the main character (he appears in every scene) and dominates most of the action, there are two other very good performances in the film. Murphy, playing conflicted girlfriend Lara, is hugely sympathetic. She’s the only character in the film who can really cut through Richard and his flaws, and gets a few winning speeches. In a small but pivotal role, Lars Mikkelsen (of The Killing and Sherlock fame) is hugely powerful as Richard’s Dad. He only really gets one scene to shine, but it’s the best scene in the entire film. As Richard begins to slowly confess more and more of what he’s done, Mikkelsen changes from disappointed to forgiving to despondent, and it is masterful. He probably has less than ten minutes screentime in the film, but he gets surprisingly close to stealing the show.
The only complaint I have for What Richard Did is its ending. Or, at least, its lack of one. I understand the point; there’s really no climax to the story. Life goes on, Richard ends up lying to himself and to Lara, and there’s little justice for anyone involved. On paper, it works as an ambiguous, thought provoking ending, but it feels jarring and sudden, as if no satisfying ending (or even a memorable final shot) could be found. It isn’t enough to ruin the film, but it does end things on a disappointing note.
What Richard Did made very little money during its theatrical run, and despite good reviews, it didn’t seem to get much notice from audiences. I firmly believe that had the film played as a BBC drama, it would have won numerous BAFTA’s, an opinion backed up by its award success in Ireland, where it was far more successful. Lenny Abrahamson is one of the most underappreciated directors of his time, and What Richard Did is proof of his versatility and his talent for working with actors. The film is haunting, offering difficult moral choices and no easy answers for whether a single moment can define a person’s entire being, or how a parent should stand on their child’s wrongdoings. It’s complex and often emotional, consistently anchored by an amazingly ambiguous and complicated performance from Jack Reynor.
By Harry Ford