What Richard Did
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Malcolm Cambell
The way that What Richard Did delivers its poignant morality tale carries as much thematic importance as the story elements themselves. The camerawork, the acting, even the script can all be described in one simple word: restraint. Restraint is also the crucial character trait on which Richard’s entire fate turns.
Everyone idolizes, and even idealizes, Richard (Jack Reynor). His teammates, his teachers, his parents, even the parents of his friends seem to recognize something special in the blue-eyed young man. And for much of the movie, it really appears as if he can do no wrong. He’s not one to exploit his popularity for selfish ends. He puts it to good use by inspiring underclassmen and improving the moods of everyone around him. Someone like Richard doesn’t have much cause for jealousy. He’s got loyal friends, well-to-do parents, plenty of talent, and a promising future. The only thorn in his side is Conor (Sam Keeley), another good-looking young rugby player who possesses a lot of the same qualities Richard’s boasts in addition to the girl of Richard’s dreams, Lara (Róisín Murphy).
When Richard makes the move to win Lara for himself, he doesn’t appear to struggle with the decision at all, and so drops the first big hint of his incredible sense of entitlement. But Conor refuses to bow out gracefully, and he constantly reminds Richard, in ways both blatant and subtle, that he’s still interested in Lara. As expected, the two rivals for Lara’s affection come to blows over her. Richard loses a battle with self-restraint and his surprising violent reaction has terminal consequences for Conor.
A tolerant attention span is a requisite for a methodical character study like this one. It takes over an hour, much more than half the 82-minute runtime, for the main crisis to occur. And the myriad little conflicts that bubble up to his final act of aggression Richard keeps cunningly disguised by a veneer of effervescent charm. But in the guilty aftermath of his transgression, Richard is forced to reevaluate everything he thought he knew about himself, and so must the audience. And upon reflection, all those cigarettes he tried to quit but smoked anyway and all those beers he meant to refuse become glaring and nefarious, not to mention his advances towards the girl he probably should have left alone. Richard, more often than not, undermines his habit of trying to do the right thing with a consistent lack of impulse control.
Richard might have trouble with self-control, but director Lenny Abrahamson has no such problem maintaining a very constrained method of storytelling. His largely stationary camera maintains its distance, employing close-ups sparingly and allowing the actors to simulate intimacy through their subtle but expressive performances. Just as the camera knows when to stay out of the actor’s faces, Malcolm Campbell’s script knows to stay out of their heads. In fact, dialogue is heavily improvised and naturalistic.
It is significant to note that the film’s title draws focus to Richard’s actions and not his good intentions. It’s called What Richard Did, not What Richard Intended. This quiet film challenges comfortable notions about good behavior and promotes introspection by exploring the extent to which our actions, including our mistakes, reveal our true identities.