What Richard Did – Lenny Abrahamson gives us more than a morality tale. (Film Review)

It’s surprising there aren’t more “anti-boiurgoise” films being made these days.  Some of our best film, literature, art and music come from a loathing of the privileged middle class and its annoying patronage that the arts cannot live without. Certainly we see less rebellion against this strangely cloistered section of society who keep mental moral tally’s weighing good deeds against bad in order to imagine supremacy over its upper and lower rivals – something that has often struck me as odd.  However, Lenny Abrahamson has provided us with a film in 2013 that speaks directly to the methodology of the complex system of moral supremacy that the middle class feel is inherently theirs. What happens when a good kid, a kid who everyone loves, who takes care of his mates and who loves his parents and is loved by them back turns on a “mate” in the lower classes and accidentally kills him in a jealous rage?

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What Richard Did is an Irish Film directed by Lenny Abrahamson and skillfully written by Malcolm Campbell. It was first released in October 2012 and won many awards in the Tenth Irish Film and Television Awards competition. Of technical note is David Grennan’s cinematography and Nathan Nugent’s editing.

Richard (a remarkably good Jack Reynor) is a popular young man, an Irish version of a jock, yet caring and sensitive when it comes to his mates, family and loved ones. He has his eye on  a pretty girl from the poor side of town who is dating a fellow footballer, who also happens to be from the cheap side of town. Richard successfully seduces Lara (Róisín Murphy) away from Connor Harris (Sam Keeley) and strikes up a relationship with her, leaving Connor sad and confused at his loss. Then one night at a crowded party, Richard is tossed out due to overcrowding by the security guards and imagines he spies Connor making moves to take Lara back again. When Lara and Conner finally emerge, Richard is furious and lets fly at Connor. Things go too far, and a terrible incident turns what was grey into clear black and white.

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The rest of the film is when the real story starts, but the ten minute long scene when Richard is locked out of the party and impotence takes him over is when the assumptions of privilege emerge. Richard’s anger is disproportionate and Abrahamson’s central question becomes what is really at stake here? A usurping of moral rights are taking place, Lara should be grateful she has a wealthy, attractive boyfriend; Connor should understand Lara has moved on to something better and he can’t compete. Richard has mentally balanced what he is owed against what he has given and come out knowing he has behaved according to a certain moral code that cannot be questioned. Richard upholds the politically correct morality of the middle class throughout the first half of the film; he rescues an underage girl member of the group from a potential rape, takes her home and sits by her side till their gang show up, he wakes up early when everyone is hung over and cleans the house, he eats properly, he exercises, he studies hard, he is good to his parents,  and he cares for his friends by looking after them when they drink too much. Other children’s parents can trust him. Richard earns an undefined credibility that entitles him to certain advantages (like good grades at university, captain of the rugby team etc) in life. As Lara says to him when she asks him what he wants in life, “you’ve got it all figured out.”

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None of this includes the manslaughter and its consequences. He didn’t actually earn that disaster, it just happened to him. Again, a key moment occurs in his discussion after Connors death, with Lara when he says “I can’t belive this has happened to me.” Didn’t he do everything right? Didn’t he obey the rules of middle class privilege? The answer is wrapped up in the end of the film (no spoilers) but the entire second half as Richard wrestles with his guilt and possible escape from consequences he comes face to face with the ugly possibility that he may get away with his crime. In the mind of Richard and those around him, he’s paid his price. And this is where Abraham’s film becomes great. We watch slowly, agonising inside ourselves about what Richard deserves and what he doesn’t. We see his terrible suffering and we feel his pain. Is that enough?

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Wrapped up in this very interesting analysis of middle class privilege is a stirring and strange relationship between Richard and his father, the older and younger middle class generations. His father, like many high-minded middle class intellectual types, plays down his macho masculinity, allowing his son to be “the man.” Leadership happens from behind, as he calls his son “beautiful boy” and hugs him rapturously in front of friends, relates stories of his own failed masculinity never holding Richards personal power back, and imbues so much high-minded faith in his beautiful boy, one wonders what Richard will make of his father on the analysts couch he will inevitably spend a lot of time on in his later years. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Richard and his father should be out shooting deer (and neither is Abrahamson) but the relinquishing of traditional masculine behaviours does not need to materialise in a white-washed male devoid of any personal power or responsibility for what masculinity means. Richard is very close to his father and therefore horribly alone.

What Richard Did is an excellent film that creates an piercing dig at what it really means to be a good upstanding middle class citizen.

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