Richard Karlsen is an 18-year-old living in Ireland. There is nothing particularly remarkable about him – he is a big lad, plays rugby, enjoys spending time with his mates, and is beginning to put on weight at that crucial time in every teenager’s life where the beer and slowing metabolism first begin to show signs of betraying you.
He’s good looking and easy-going. From the first moment he sees Lara sitting a few metres away from him, he knows he likes her. That one of his friends in his rugby team, Conor – another good looking lad – is friendly with her doesn’t quell the demands of his teenage testosterone drive; and it seems that Lara wouldn’t mind getting to know him better either. It is important not to judge them harshly – they are not bad people. Stupid – well, maybe immature is the fairer word to use for our protagonist; his grades may be good, but as far as common sense and emotional intelligence are concerned, he is a child.
One of the real strengths of Lenny Abrahamson’s new film is his steadfast adherence to realism. These people feel real – we know people like these, know them well, and even when we can see that they’re heading for disaster and wish we could tell them to wake up and stop being so stupid, we cannot escape from the horrible feeling that what we are being shown feels all too authentic. Abrahamson has a very perceptive eye – the parties and gatherings that we see in this film all recall memories of ours. These characters are deliberately unremarkable – but the characterisation, just like the film as a whole, is anything but shallow.
We know from these first scenes that something bad is going to happen, and most audience members – given the title – will guess exactly what it is from the opening scenes. Indeed, there are no surprises in this film at all – at least, not in the way of twists and turns. It is a slow-burner, more interested in atmosphere and character than plot – and that I admire. The acting, also, is first-class – Jack Reynor and Roisin Murphy as Richard and Lara are both outstanding, with excellent support from Sam Keeley (Conor) and Lars Mikkelsen (in a stunning turn as Richard’s father).
The pacing, as you would expect, is slow and measured; at times in the second half, it slows down just that little bit too much – but by and large, Abrahamson’s control of his material is admirable. One of the greatest challenges Abrahamson has confronted is to show Richard in as honest a light as possible without alienating the audience from him – I expect many will find it difficult to sympathise with him, but I believe this to be the point. In a contemplative film about guilt, Abrahamson’s refusal to give easy answers does him credit.
What Richard Did does not tread any new ground, nor will it cater to all tastes. However, the strength of the performances and the confidence of the direction raise this film above the TV-drama standard that it could, admittedly, have sunk to. This is a far more understated and mature piece of filmmaking. It isn’t going to set the world on fire – and with such treats as Life of Pi, The Impossible, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln either continuing or being released this month – What Richard Did will be much overlooked. But taken as it is – a small-scale morality drama – this makes for thoroughly satisfactory and quietly impressive cinema.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (January ’13)