independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

James Dempsey on What Richard Did: Portrait of a city with soul ... and swearing

WITH today’s release of the new Irish drama What Richard Did, one thing is abundantly clear – between his feature film debut with 2004’s Adam & Paul and his claustrophobic character study of the eponymous Richard, director Lenny Abrahamson knows Dublin, and it’s very much a tale of two cities.



It would be unfair to say that Abrahamson’s work is a love affair with Anna Livia Plurabelle, framing Dublin’s North- and Southsides and their erstwhile inhabitants in an idealistic golden light of joy and cherish. Abrahamson’s city is not, for instance, Woody Allen’s New York, a place where character failings are fuelled by frantic fits of narcissism or neurosis, but who rarely succumb to the burdening weights of stress or guilt.



Nor would it be fair to say that Abrahamson’s city is void of wit and flavour. The director knows how to tell a joke like a proper Dubliner, be it finding moments of black humour as two junkies look for their next fix, or capturing the easy charm and boys-own bonhomie of a bunch of Southside rugby lads. Abrahamson’s city is filled with characters so perfectly rounded that they are, undoubtedly, the people you pass by on the street every day, stealing envious glances or avoiding their eye contact.



Dublin and its people have been captured on camera before, from the scattershot scenes of Intermission, to the busking and budding love affair of Once, by way of the Barrytown Trilogy and the sprawling destinies of the Rabitte family.

While Alan Parker’s The Commitments may well be the popular choice as the best version of Dublin ever to hit the silver screen, there is no denying that it characterises the city’s Northside, combining expletive humour and soul music as an endlessly enjoyable, but unrealistic, slice of Dublin.



Abrahamson’s Northside also has soul and swearing. But it throws in Beckett-like moments of existentialism for good measure, as Adam and Paul slowly make their way around the city, mugging a boy with Down’s Syndrome and waiting for something to happen. In his two leads, scripted by Mark “Adam” O’Halloran, Abrahamson captures two men from the underside of north of the Liffey, junkies who do not reflect the entirety of the district’s denizens, but who can be found traipsing the boardwalk or hanging around Connolly Station any day of the week.



His Southside is equally flawed. What Richard Did, based on Kevin Power’s Bad Day in Blackrock, presents a world of privilege and pressurised expectations. Gone are the grim flats and grey streets, replaced by art deco beach houses and leafy boroughs. Richard, played with naturalistic conviction in a star-making role by Jack Reynor, is a young man on the cusp of an adult life, a star of the rugby field and a universally liked figure in this circle of Celtic Tiger Cubs.



Richard is a likeable charmer, fleshed out beyond the loike of D4 caricatures so royshly ripped apart in the Irish media at large. In the first half hour, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Richard, with his easy smile and playful banter. But when petty jealousy drags him kicking and screaming into a moment of self-destruction, the weight of his actions completely changes the boy we see on screen.

And Abrahamson is a witness, rather than prosecutor or defender. He frames Richard Karlsen in such a way as to let the audience make their judgment. Richard is both an angel and a monster, but it’s up to you to make the final decision.



So take a trip to the cinema this weekend, and see just What Richard Did. In doing so, particularly if you are a Dubliner, you may well recognise who you see on screen.



Follow James on Twitter: @jim_on_a_whim

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