Thursday, April 25, 2013

Above us only sky...

...some afterthoughts about What Richard Did.

Let me first offer the proviso that film reviewing invariably expresses some degree of receptivity and projection on the part of the reviewer.  Too much receptivity and objective critical distance is lost.  Too much projection and the response will be more about the critic than the film itself. [I might add, belatedly, that not enough of either and one should consider finding another line of work.]

This post is about What Richard Did and what I believe has been missing from most of the commentary I have read about the film.  What follows flows, seven months after seeing the film, from personal receptivity and projection, in what I hope are balanced proportions.

Given the real-life events What Richard Did draws upon it is understandable, in Ireland at least, that much of what has been written about the film has addressed its verisimilitude its believability, and the true-to-life quality of the performances and the social milieu created on screen.  It was judged – invariably favourably and with every justification – on its rendering of the circumstances that led to an unpremeditated act with fatal consequences.

That said, and as much as the film is about that act, the film is also about what Richard, and those closest to him, did not do – confess to the authorities so that the law might take its course.  The fulcrum for this twist, for considering this failure to act as the moral issue and focus of the film, is provided by the moment of raw, blinding torment expressed at the funeral by the dead boy’s mother, played by Gabrielle Reidy.

That so many reviewers of the film neglect or elide this moment is in part a response, I think, to the resolutely restrained and observational tone of the film up to that point.  The mother’s reaction, a totally uninhibited show of emotional devastation and anger in the face of the closed ranks in the pews before her, is as discomfiting to the film’s audience as it must be to those at the funeral service.

She seems out of place in this film.  She’s over the top.  We wish she’d shut up.  Better still, could she take her grief somewhere else so that we, the audience, can indulge our collusion with handsome, well-got Richard’s escape from a charge of manslaughter?  He didn’t mean it, after all.  And anyway, who are we to judge?

Truth be told, in the real world outside the cinema – precisely where What Richard Did has its origins – any of us may be called upon for jury service at any time.  In a court, unlike on a cinema screen, a person is either guilty or innocent and pleas of mitigation are not heard until after the verdict is given by us, the jurors.

But back to that moment at the funeral.  It is, if memory serves, a classic example of what’s known in the theatre as a Brechtian device, or the ‘distancing effect’.  It is a crucial part of the dramaturgy of What Richard Did that has escaped the notice of most commentary I have read on the film.  It reflects, moreover, a series of courageous steps in the writing, in the performance (Brava!, Ms Reidy) and in the edit, because the audience does not want to be shifted from the forgiving empathy they have with Richard and his failure to ‘own up’ to his guilt, itself an act of omission.

The intention of the distancing effect in drama is to raise consciousness in the audience, to cause them to reflect, to step back into themselves while they are being entertained.  It is, to say the least, a tricky device to use in film-making because we, the audience, enter the cinema with the expectation, perhaps even the intention that we be carried along by the action in such a way that we escape the reflection that dogs us in our day-to-day lives.

Perhaps it’s just me – I grew up in Dublin 4, I went to one of those schools, I camped down in Brittas Bay, I did the teenage drinking in the nether regions of southside Dublin – but the moment What Richard Did coalesced as a piece of cinema was in those later, seemingly purposeless shots of suburban skies, framed between passing trees from an invisible vehicle. That was when and how the film expressed the silent reaction to the mother's grief. It is, arguably, the only time the film shows its own point of view.

It occurs to me that this use of the image is what separates Lenny Abrahamson from the vast majority of Irish film makers, no matter how celebrated or successful they may be.  These others are really dramatists or storytellers; film just happens to be a medium they use.  They could as easily write books or make theatre. Abrahamson, it seems to me, is simply a film-maker.  He explores moral questions and cinema is his natural medium for those explorations.

Months after seeing the film, and for all the echoes of its adolescent noise, What Richard Did’s real resonance comes from the reflective breathing space offered by those few late sequences of the skies over south Dublin, together with a line that floated in unasked from somewhere else – ‘above us only sky’.

Once I recalled the source of the line it came to me that it wasn’t just the sky itself but the correlative meanings of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ lyric that had brought it to mind.  A world free of nation and religion does not mean a world free of individual culpability and conscience, although it may seem that way in Dublin’s tree-lined suburbia south of the Liffey.

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