The Guardian, Thursday 3 January 2013
Privileged kids … Róisín Murphy and Jack Reynor in What Richard Did
Cinema legend loves the rise of a film-school rookie with a camera, a megaphone and a maxed-out credit card, but that is not Lenny Abrahamson‘s story. When he made his 2004 debut, Adam and Paul, he was already in his late 30s, with an abandoned PhD in philosophy and a career in commercials behind him. “I’m a bit of a late developer generally,” he sighs. “But the good thing about being a filmmaker is you still count as young all the way through your 40s.” He is 46 now, with wispy red hair and soft eyes, and so modest that he squirms visibly when I ask him to pinpoint his place in Irish cinema. “All the taxi drivers inDublin have heard of Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan. I guess I’m the next one down.”
Three films into his career, he has already established a recognisable sensibility (dryly funny, inquisitive, plangent) and been honoured with a retrospective at the Irish Film Institute. Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times observed that Abrahamson and his regular collaborator Mark O’Halloran “may be the best thing that ever happened to Irish cinema”. O’Halloran, who wrote and starred in Adam and Paul, and scripted the director’s second film,Garage, says of his friend: “He’s enormously respected in Ireland. All the films have done brilliantly at the box office, which is unusual: they’re arthouse films, there’s no two ways about it, and yet they strike a chord. It’s hard to elbow your way into the Cineplex world, but Len has done it: he puts bums on seats.” Those taxi drivers had better get on the case, and fast.
I meet the director one crisp afternoon in a hotel in his native Dublin. The corridors are filled with the hubbub of a spiffy wedding party, while outside 10,000 protesters are taking part in an anti-austerity march. It’s a division to which Abrahamson’s work is alert. He has until now been a poet of the dispossessed. Adam and Paul was a grungy comic odyssey about 24 hours in the lives of two homeless Dublin smackheads: it wasUlysses meets Waiting for Godot with Laurel and Hardy pratfalls. Garage was a melancholy character study about a jovial attendant at a rundown rural petrol station, whose developmental difficulties prevent him from seeing that his entire way of life is doomed.
Abrahamson’s haunting new picture, What Richard Did, retains the confidence and control of its predecessors, but the 18-year-old hero (played by Jack Reynor, recently announced as the lead in the next Transformers movie) could hardly be less of an outsider. He’s handsome, respected, comfortably middle-class, larky with his rugby team-mates and tender toward his girlfriend. But a sense of foreboding permeates the film from the opening seconds when Richard mutters innocuously: “Somebody’s got a problem.” That somebody is him. Prospective viewers unfamiliar with the source material (Kevin Power’s factually-based novel Bad Day in Blackrock) will by this point be asking: what did he do? Let’s preserve the mystery and say only that what Richard did falls outside the category of jolly japes.
“Generally speaking, the misfit’s story is easier to tell,” Abrahamson says. “I’ve done it myself – twice. Richard is a good guy, but good guys are complex, too. I was thinking about those boys and the pressure they’re under, their inability to deal with fractures in that perfect sphere of life. It’s the kind of situation we all know, where we disappoint ourselves, and we have to deal with the disjunction between what we would like to be and what we are. I was interested in the narrative of how we nurture our elite in this society: all that stuff about believing in yourself and not accepting second best. Our inner world is at odds with that. What’s fascinating about a boy of Richard’s age is that he still believes his own bullshit. If you meet an adult who believes his own schtick to that extent, you’re talking about someone like Simon Cowell – you know, a monster. But at 18 or 19, it’s naively-held and it can be attractive.”
The picture is characterised by subtly disorienting ellipses and stylistic tensions. Sometimes the cinematography is as pretty as Terrence Malick at magic hour; elsewhere, the actors are stalked by a predatory steadicam. Through it all, Abrahamson’s curiosity about his subjects is palpable. “I like to feel that the implied director of the film is a slightly academic, tweedy figure. He’s scratching his chin, asking: ‘What is this person doing? Let me get in a little closer.’ I pitched it as a kind of natural history project where I take this tribe and see if I can understand what’s going on with them.” That said, What Richard Did takes place much more in Abrahamson’s own world than either of his previous films. As a privately-educated, middle-class filmmaker, he has experienced different sorts of class hostility. “Occasionally you get people saying: ‘Who’d want to watch something about these privileged kids?’ And with Adam and Paul, you’d sometimes hear: ‘Who the hell does he think he is, making a film about homeless drug addicts?’ But I live in this country: I can talk about anything I like in my work. I feel very bullish about that.”
If Abrahamson speaks eloquently about the insecurities that plague Richard, it may be because he has experienced his own. He made a splash in his early 20s with several short films before sidelining his career to accept a scholarship to Stanford to study philosophy. “As soon as I got there, I felt really unsure. I loved the subject but I felt lonely, and I was aching to do something in film. Then once I was back in Dublin six months later, I thought: ‘What have I chucked away?'” He began rising later and later each day until he found he was sitting at his typewriter through the night. “It was this weird nocturnal existence. I was miserable and I was producing nothing I liked.” An escape route came through directing commercials: his witty, glossy lager ads depicting male fantasy worlds (the “Carlsberg doesn’t do …” series) were something of a phenomenon. “It was a chance for me to test whether I could pull off this filmmaking thing after all.” He could. It marked one of the few occasions anyone’s professional prospects had been improved by alcohol.
Even once Adam and Paul was made –for half the budget of one of those 60-second lager ads – there was a brief period of uncertainty for Abrahamson. “I remember a Q&A I did in Wales where there were five people in the auditorium. One guy who was really pissed came up on stage halfway through to give me a big hug.” He laughs. “So my hopes weren’t high.” But Adam and Paul caught on: the reviews were glowing, the Withnail and I comparisons richly deserved, the humour scabrous and poignant. “There was a tone in Adam and Paul that I was trying to get toward,” says O’Halloran. “Len understood it and knew exactly what to do with it: he encouraged me to go further. I was really lucky to meet him.”
This month, Abrahamson begins shooting another comedy: Frank, his most ambitious project yet. Set partly at the SXSW festival (with Albuquerque standing in for Austin), it will star Michael Fassbender as an enigmatic, agoraphobic musician who rarely emerges from beneath his giant fake head. That detail is inspired by the eccentric Mancunian performer Frank Sidebottom – the film is co-written by the Guardian’s Jon Ronson, a former member of Sidebottom’s band – but Abrahamson insists the character stands in for all music’s outsiders.
Peruse the film’s potentially volatile ingredients (rock’n’roll comedy, European director working for the first time in America) and you would be forgiven for thinking: “Uh-oh – This Must Be the Place.” But fear not. Abrahamson is a devout minimalist who has yet to direct a film that’s over 90 minutes long. “I always think I want to make something at the other end of the spectrum. Not quite Almodóvar, but maybe slightly extravagant. Then I end up doing the minimalism thing. I’m looking for an intensity of focus. It’s a bit like tuning a guitar string. You tighten and tighten and nothing really changes until you hit that tension and suddenly it’s there: you’ve got a note.”
The Guardian, Thursday 10 January 2013
Irish director Lenny Abrahamson emerges with his third feature as a premier league film-maker. Each of his movies looks different from the others – there are no repeated auteurist mannerisms – and yet the potent, creative intelligence behind them is plain. His first film, Adam and Paul (2004), had something of Beckett with its two smackheads at large in Dublin; his second, Garage (2007), was a tragicomedy about a lonely petrol station attendant in a higher social-realist style (though working with same writer, Mark O’Halloran).
What Richard Did is something else again. Written by Malcolm Campbell, it’s a complex, subtle drama about self-confident teenagers that draws on two traditions: American teen-noir such as Carrie or Heathers, and European dramas of group dysfunction such as those by Vinterberg and Haneke. I can imagine it getting remade by Hollywood – or in Danish. The lead character’s father is played by Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Mads, the star of Vinterberg’s The Hunt. The milieu is Dublin’s prosperous and status-conscious social elite, a sleek and well-heeled group that existed before, during and after the Celtic Tiger boom.
The adolescent alpha male at the story’s centre is Richard, played by Jack Reynor with an open, handsome face that registers his character’s sense of good-natured entitlement. Richard is a high-achiever, a schoolboy rugby star. With easy, worldly confidence, he hangs out with his buddies and a crowd of adoring girls: they have parties at his parents’ beach house, and he is introduced to people almost like a politician or celebrity. Tension sets in when Richard decides he has fallen for Lara (Róisin Murphy), the pretty girlfriend of teammate Conor (Sam Keeley). The result is slow-burning and disturbing. Abrahamson shows that whatever the failings and weaknesses of the young, it is their elders who insist on wriggling away from blame. What Richard Did is an engrossing and intelligent drama that throbs in the mind for hours after the final credits.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Starring Jack Reynor, Roisin Murphy, Sam Keeley, Gavin Drea, Lars Mikkelsen, Lorraine Pilkington 15 cert, general release, 87 min
This low-key drama of young swells in South Dublin is powerfully affecting, writesTARA BRADY
WHAT RICHARD DID opens with three young men in a car cruising between the get-togethers and hook-ups of a pre-college summer. The driver is schoolboy rugby star Richard (Jack Reynor), a “super- rich” kid with a car, access to the family beach house and a charmed life. He has never wanted for anything and, sure enough, when he sets his sights on Lara (Roísín Murphy), he seems to easily win her over from Conor (Sam Keeley)
Sadly, our hero’s insecurities and defenses soon work to sabotage the blossoming romance. Too alpha male to stomach Lara’s continuing friendship with Conor, Richard is carelessly drawn into an after-party scuffle, a melange with devastating consequences.
Lenny Abrahamson’s first film, Adam and Paul, featured the lowest rung of society at the height of the boom. What Richard Did, conversely, reminds us that, even during times of economic crisis, the rich will always be with us.
As with everything else in the movie, Abrahamson is not flash with the cash. The film’s patient, naturalistic depiction of teen life – created over eight months of character workshopping with the young cast – simply doesn’t allow for ideological grandstanding. Talking points are kept on the lowdown. Important themes are slyly confined to throwaway, background details.
If Garage was made under the sign of Tarkovsky, this one’s for Bergman. The screenplay, by Shameless scribe Malcolm Campbell, studiously avoids the smoking guns found in Gus van Sant’s Elephant and the bad seed grotesquerie of We Need to Talk About Kevin in favour of thoughtful Scandinavian rhythms.
The characters are nuanced and brilliantly realised: the kids are privileged yet have little in common with the amoral, spoiled monsters that populate Larry Clarke’s similarly paced Bully. They slip off for drinks and sex in the park but they also do school spirit and say thank you. Richard behaves callously but mostly cluelessly.
The clean, casual lines of David Grennan’s cinematography add to the sensation that we’re watching a greatly needed antidote to an entire hysterical history of delinquent youths on screen. There are no direct references to the source novel (Kevin Power’s Bad Day in Blackrock) or the case that preceded it. There are only imperfect teens with imperfect lives ahead.
London Film Festival 2012: What Richard Did Review
October 17, 2012
Lenny Abrahamson continues his exploration of contemporary Irish hardship with his third feature, What Richard Did, a disturbing, tightly-knit drama which fires off in unexpected directions, but is at all times perfectly wrought, at once delivering white-knuckle suspense and searing emotional resonance.
Our first sight in the film is of Richard (Jack Reynor) and his mates, who are at the tail-end of their summer holidays, and fancifully enjoying life. The authentic dialogue, as the guys dick around telling stories doesn’t merely get points for realism; it’s also bracingly funny, too. The naturalism of the performances is perhaps no better realised than when we meet Richard’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Lara (Roisin Murphy); Murphy and Reynor’s palpable chemistry, and their inherent, glowing appeal, makes them a fun pair to watch, even as things slowly but surely begin to get uncomfortable.
The first half of Abrahamson’s film clips along on the merits of just how affable Richard is; the girls have it for him and he’s an eminently likable presence among the lads, so we’re left wondering, what exactly did he do? It is this suspense that keeps us glued during the getting-to-know-you dialogues early on; the very title of the piece meanwhile oscillates in our mind throughout. Non-linear sound editing – nimbly fragmenting dialogue into the next scene – also helps to prevent us from getting too settled.
As tension continues to build, examining the nature of the male ego in particular, this quiet dread eventually gives way to a savage and uncharacteristic act that will haunt Richard and the majority of the other characters for the film’s remainder. From this moment, What Richard Did switches gears to become an intense thriller-drama of sorts, quietly suspenseful as we’re reminded of the power that one instant of poor judgement can harness. Abrahamson’s taut, breathless direction keeps the drama high and the characters ever in flux, as blame is constantly shifted while various members of the group attempt to assuage their guilt.
Jack Reynor’s central performance is a revelation, a confrontation of the self that is more internal than external, requiring him to express more with a pained countenance than through expository moral quandaries. A primal breakdown near the end of the film might under lesser circumstances feel overly affected, but given Richard’s overwhelming guilt, it feels visceral and unsettlingly raw. One tell-all with his father (played splendidly by Lars Mikkelsen) late in the day, meanwhile, is utterly remarkable.
It’s a wrenching, rich, character-driven film about a young man haunted by a powerful force, perpetually anxiety-inducing in its second half as it surrenders the full, soul-decaying measure of guilt’s power; the ending, needless to say, is a nail-biter alright. Doing the right thing is never as easy as it seems in Lenny Abrahamson’s sublimely acted and almost unbearably tense drama.