Sunday, 23 February 2014

What Richard Did (2012) - Film Review

Starring: Jack Reynor, Sam Keeley and Lars Mikkelsen


Loosely based on true events, What Richard Did is the story of a Dublin teenager on the cusp of manhood. Richard Karlsen (Jack Reynor) has it all - the adoring family, the awe and respect of his peers as captain of the rugby team and the prospects of a carefree summer before university. When newcomer to the scene Lara catches Richard's eye, his friendship with fellow teammate Conor (Sam Keeley) becomes tenuous when it's apparent Richard isn't the only one to notice Lara. Struggling to accept the friendship between Conor and Lara, Richard's jealously grows, albeit in an initially passive-aggressive manner.What unfolds is a story of unprecedented violence and guilt that is haunting for both Richard and the audience.


What Richard Did is essentially a "fall of a hero" tale. Richard is the archetypal hero figure - the golden boy of his milieu. He's the stereotypical apple of his parent's eyes (especially his fathers, which only sets him up for a greater fall when events unfold), looked up to with awe and respect by the younger members of the rugby clique and fawned over by girls. Richard however is not one who carries this admiration with arrogance. He is well mannered and polite to his elders, protective over the younger members of his social circle and displays many instances of good intentions.

When the character of Lara is introduced, we begin to see cracks in Richard's initially stellar character. When it becomes apparent that Conor is still very much in the picture for being Lara's friend, an underlying current of jealousy is evident in Richard's demeanour. Where overt hostility could be employed from the offset, the played down insincerity with which Richard treats Conor is all the more unsettling. The tension is palpable, especially for the passive-aggressiveness from Richard's side compared to the continually good-natured Conor.

When the film's title lives up to its name, Richard's means of coping with the fall out is much more telling of his character. Essentially it seems Richard's biggest character flaw is his ego and the need to be seen in a positive light. His behaviour breaks down in a subtle but meaningful way thereafter and it is this development (or reversal of) that is endearing to watch play out.

What Richard Did examines the idea of a person's true nature given the right circumstances. When guilty, Richard is more cold and calculated, his main drive being for self-preservation. Yet despite this, he still expresses remorse. At the heart of his character, Richard does seem a 'good' person - so should he be condemned for this one anomalous yet reprehensible act? Here the lines of morality are blurred and this is where What Richard Did sparks an interesting debate.

Richard could be easily portrayed as unlikeable and arrogant for his status and privilege. The question that does bear considering is whether Richard's upbringing has inevitably given him a sense of entitlement that stretches into his personal relationships. There is an element of hubris to the character, evident in the way Richard cannot fathom why Conor doesn't concede to his failing to win Lara by stepping aside and breaking off contact. Without this, how can Richard display himself as the 'better man'?  What Richard Did however, doesn't depict any stereotypical, debauched behaviour to hint that Richard's actions are typical or a product of his upbringing. The mistakes and actions dealt with in What Richard Did are universal and transcend environmental and social influences.

The cinematography is understated, relying on natural light to create a sense of stillness throughout the film. This helps develop the idea of  'the calm before the storm', hinting towards something more terrible impending. With the absence of artificial lighting, there's an intimate element to the film, with much of the story set in the languid hours of the day. Moody and poignant, the story becomes more true to life for its reliance on authenticity.

My one gripe with What Richard Did is the lack of character development for Conor. The film gave little to no elaboration to his background and much is left to speculation. Conor is depicted as more obviously vulnerable than Richard, slighter in build and more gentle in his mannerisms. The film only hints at personal issues, yet all we are left with is the impression that Conor is as much the 'good guy' as Richard apparently is. Although Conor is a likeable character treated with sympathy, it's difficult to say whether there would be much satisfaction from seeing Richard brought to justice (i.e. prison).

What Richard Did is an exploration of morality and guilt. An observation into the subsequent fallout of one boy's terrible act, when there is little redemption or justice.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Shame (2011) - Film Review

Starring: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Synopsis: Brandon is desperately addicted to sex and porn. A successful New York businessmen, he projects a facade of suave composure to his friends and colleagues.The unceremonious arrival of estranged and dysfunctional sister Sissy threatens the picture of stability and success Brandon has constructed for himself. 


We are introduced to Brandon against the backdrop of a grimy New York subway. Assiduously dressed in fitted coat and cravat-styled scarf, he's incongruous to the dirt smeared windows; a contrast to the sloven homeless man slumped in the opposite seat. His shame - inevitably reviled by society - is worn openly. Here we have just one example of the enduring irony employed in Shame. Brandon's shame is private and tortuous. Shots of Brandon staring lingeringly up at exhibitionist couples through windows emphasises Brandon's isolation. He alone seems to be incapable of wearing their deviations openly.

The audience is granted an intimate look into Brandon's perversions. Whilst this is uncomfortable for the subject matter at hand, the irony is again evident when played against scenes with a co-worker who Brandon develops 'real' feelings for. Connecting on an emotional level creates a mental and physical block, making Brandon a figure of pity and hopelessness. Shutting the world out on any meaningful level, the audience are the only ones privy to Brandon's personal life.

It's unsettling to see how ordered and meticulous he is in his daily life. Ritualistic to a tee, the arrival of emotionally erratic Sissy (Carey Mulligan) threatens Brandon's grip on what he can control. Although never elaborated on, instead relegated to an invisible storyline for the audience to ruminate on, Brandon and Sissy are incapable of engaging in functional relationships. At the heart of this seems to be an inappropriate 'anti-bond', leaning towards incestuous undertones. The siblings are brutally exposed to one another, both physically and emotionally.

Sissy is damaged. Whether due to dysfunctional relationships of her own (scenes of Sissy pleading on the phone to an ex-lover are sad and pathos-like), she clings desperately to Brandon for scraps of affection. She is above all, vulnerable and despite her own distasteful behaviour, Shame depicts her as almost innocent and childlike. Shrouded in thin white material or in a glitzy ballgown singing a bluesy version of New York New York (in the films most gorgeous scene), Sissy seems to be the only character to appreciate hers and her brother's issues of misplaced intimacy. "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place."

Shame is raw and brutal in exposing Brandon for his addiction. Whereas much of the film is muted in its colour pallete, emphasising the isolated world Brandon inhabits, colours are suddenly abundant and vibrant when Brandon succumbs or indulges in his addiction. The soundtrack is melancholic but hopeful and with the film's ambiguous open ending lending to audience speculation, that is all Brandon is left with. The possibility of rehabilitation.

Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan (both past collaborators with Fassbender - see Hunger and Fish Tank respectively) have created a brave, nonjudgmental portrait of a man isolated for an addiction many would look upon as perverse. Unflinching and unapologetic, Fassbender is on form in his portrayal of Brandon. The nuances of his personality - charismatic, suavely flirtatious, tortured for his impulsions - are perfectly executed, without a hint of melodrama and as composed as his character crafts himself to be.