IoS film review 2: What Richard Did

Now take your seats for a brilliant drama in a single, awful act

Oh dear, what a very, very big year 2013 is going to be in the cinema, with practically nothing but prestigious monuments, and the odd apocalypse epic, on the long road between Les Mis and the second tranche of The Hobbit. With all this in mind, let me recommend a film that's on a sane human scale –What Richard Did, a small but intense piece of psychological drama from Ireland. Its director, Lenny Abrahamson, made two much admired features – the rural-set Garage and Adam & Paul, about two Dublin heroin addicts – and he now turns his attention to pampered teenagers from a well-heeled district of south Dublin.

Time for a SPOILER ALERT – although it's not that much of a giveaway to reveal that the film's protagonist, Richard, does something, and something rather bad. In fact, the film is based on a notorious incident in Dublin in the year 2000 which became the basis of a novel by Kevin Power, Bad Day in Blackrock, which is the source of Malcolm Campbell's terse script.

The film starts by introducing us to Richard's circle, an agreeably lively bunch. Richard (newcomer Jack Reynor) is a rugby player just out of school and every bit the evident alpha male. He's charming, gregarious, intelligent and no doubt destined to be a leader of men. Embarking on a carefree summer of beaches and parties, he hits it off with a girl named Lara, played by Róisin Murphy (another newcomer, rather than the ex-Moloko singer), who promptly ditches her boyfriend, Conor, for him.

The only thing that begins to worry you is the occasional glimmer of a scowl on Richard's chiselled features. This look doesn't communicate a great deal (it's a film of finely-judged understatement) but you begin to sense that Richard has a propensity to moodiness, and to a certain male rivalrousness that Conor (Sam Keeley) sparks in him. It may be because the boy's from a less privileged background, or because of his slightly feminine good looks and sensitive, arty charm. Dismissing Conor's fine bar-room recital of a Gaelic ballad, Richard tells Lara: "I don't get the whole lost-in-the-Celtic-mists intensity of it."

Conor's song, explains Lara, translates as: "I'm asleep and don't wake me." And that is the key to the film – it's about people that prefer not to be woken. When Richard's drastic act happens, the incident itself is less shocking than its repercussions. First Richard and his friends panic as they try to get a grip on events, and the linear narrative briefly fragments in a burst of jagged editing. Then they deny it to themselves – and others start denying it too.

There are only a few moments of outright dramatic rhetoric. Otherwise, the film has a mesmerisingly vivid things-just-happen feel to it, and places its central event within a context of the more or less inconsequential.

The film's only awkwardness is in the casting of Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen (from The Killing, Series 1, and Mads Mikkelsen's brother) as Richard's Danish father. His overtly soulful acting style seems to yearn for a more melodramatic outlet than this very controlled work. As for the young cast, they're terrific, their ensemble scenes having the sort of easy, seemingly improvisational feel that's notoriously difficult to pull off. Reynor is particularly a find, with a striking precocity that at once suggests rampant gilded youth and premature middle-aged weightiness. There's an amazing shot too caught by David Grennan's camera: a close-up of a sleeping face, with long lashes and soft fuzz. It's a moment before we realise that this feminine, childlike figure is the big lad we've seen affably joking and slapping backs. We know by then what Richard did – but who he is, and what bad dreams torment him, is something that this economical and quietly brilliant film only needs hint at.

Critic's Choice

Moody maestro of French cinema Bruno Dumont returns with Hors Satan, an enigmatic parable about the dark doings of a social outsider. And by way of a January tonic, Screwball! at London's BFI Southbank is a glittering season of Sturges, Hawks, Lubitsch and other vintage Hollywood wits.