Portrait of a teenage killer

In Lenny Abrahamson’s film What Richard Did, a private school rugby hero commits a very public act of violence, says Pádraic Killeen

ALONG with Adam and Paul (2004) and Garage (2007), director Lenny Abrahamson’s new film What Richard Did underlines his reputation as the finest Irish filmmaker of recent years.

What Richard Did has a detached yet lyrical camera style, intensely emotional photography, and a captivating lead performance by newcomer Jack Reynor.

Supported by an able young cast, Reynor is a revelation as a charismatic teenager from Dublin’s middle classes who — in a moment of drunkenness and pent-up fury — becomes a killer.

The film is a loose adaptation of Kevin Power’s 2008 novel Bad Day in Blackrock. The book was based on the infamous Club Anabel case in which a young man, Brian Murphy, died outside the Burlington Hotel in 2000, after a terrifying fight with a number of other young men. The controversial case, which rumbled on in the courts for years, triggered discussion of Dublin’s private school culture and, for some, raised questions about the justice system.

For Abrahamson and Reynor, who sit together in a Dublin hotel suite, the Anabel case, and the degree to which What Richard Did evokes it, is by now a well-worn topic of conversation.

“It’s going to be in people’s heads and, therefore, I have a responsibility to deal with it,” says Abrahamson. “The reason I feel I can stand proudly behind this film is that I made a very conscious decision to remove any existing traces from Kevin’s book that linked it to any particular event. And I have made it a fully fictional film.”

“We spent eight months developing this film before we went into the shoot,” says Reynor. “What we did during that time was invest a lot of our own experiences as an ensemble of actors — our own experiences of school, of society, of family, religion, politics, and everything. And from those very candid conversations we developed our script. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m playing a totally original character. I’m not portraying anybody.”

Reynor’s Richard is the captain of his school’s rugby side. A minor deity among his select circle, he is cool, at ease with the adulation, and yet enigmatic, vulnerable, and strangely cut-off.

During a frightening drunken scuffle, he and his two friends kill another young boy, and Richard becomes even more difficult to pin down. The film’s elegant cinematography reinforces the idea of a character who is at once visible to us and yet also obscure, and the eerie detachment of Abrahamson’s style is riveting.

As the title suggests, the film presents us only with this young man’s actions. It’s left to the viewer to decide for themselves about those actions.

Reynor inhabits the character with an inspired naturalism, making Richard both palpably real and yet ultimately inscrutable.

“That’s a thing that I’m really obsessed by,” says Abrahamson. “In the world of conventional drama, there’s this idea that a character is really just a sum of psychological traits. What does the character want? Who are they? The assumption is that if you can’t answer those questions, then you don’t have a real character.

“And yet, in everyday life you can meet a person you’ve never met before, chat with them in a bus queue, say. You don’t know anything about their back-story. You don’t know anything about their ‘psychological toolbox’ or any of the other bollocks phrases that you find in script-writing manuals.

“Yet you have a total sense of that person. So the profound thing for me is the unknowability of people and yet their tangible realness. Now that’s a hard thing to do in film.”

Of course, the key to achieving it is casting.

“With Jack, his audition was great,” says Abrahamson. “He’s a really good actor, so I believed him and he was right for the part in so many ways.

“But then, I was actually talking to Jack over the course of a couple of sessions of auditions, and I picked up on his immediate persona — he comes over as very confident but there are other layers there — and that’s when I thought, ‘ah, we’ve got a film’.”

“Lenny lets the actor come toward the character, but also brings the character toward the actor,” says Reynor.

“There’s a harmony and a middle ground. It wasn’t like he was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. From the time I was cast, Richard started to develop around me as much as I tried to inhabit the character.”

Both Abrahamson and Reynor are graduates of private secondary schools in Dublin. However, both say they had an outsider’s perspective on the schools’ cultures. Reynor entered Belvedere College when he was 12, having grown up in County Wicklow, and he testifies to the intense pressure to succeed he saw placed on young men.

“I really loved going to that school,” says Reynor. “It was a fantastic experience and it really helped me develop. But, at the same time, I could see where the danger could be for other people.”

While What Richard Did focuses on Dublin’s private schools, it is more broadly a film about the pressures of youth culture. This is an important point for Abrahamson. “This is about young men,” he says, “and young men are potentially violent in all cultures, at all times, and at every level of society.”

Reynor learned his trade while performing in student drama at Belvedere, having been bitten by the acting bug as a six-year-old, when he played an altar boy in Kevin Liddy’s 1999 film Country. “My family were extras and I just walked on set and said ‘well, can I have a go at this’?” he says. “And they said ‘alright’ and that was it. That was the first time I ever considered going into a profession and it was the last time as well. Acting is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”

He’s been doing it pretty well. The 20-year-old was recently snapped up by a big Hollywood talent agency and he says that he has been cast in an American studio film to be shot in New York this winter.

“It’s a really nice part in quite a high-profile film,” he says. “I’m afraid I can’t reveal anything about it at the moment.”

Abrahamson, meanwhile, is already working on his next project, Frank, a more light-hearted film, starring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson as members of a rock band.

It seems like new territory for the Dubliner. Yet if his career to date has proven anything, it’s that Abrahamson is a singular filmmaker who can effortlessly make any territory his own.

* What Richard Did is released this Friday

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