In the absence of an alternative, this certainly is the Anabel's film
IN THE FILM What Richard Did Lenny Abrahamson creates a universe so compact that nothing appears to exist beyond the peripheral vision of its lead character – at times, little beyond the breeze of his panicked, shallow breaths. Its gardaí are voices, not faces. Its central event, the killing of a young man in south Dublin, takes place in a world untroubled by any subsequent crush of the media.
In one sequence, a drive through the capital’s streets, the camera’s gaze is fixed upwards, at the higher storeys of the buildings, at rooftops, trees, a washed-out sky. Dublin has the appearance of an empty city, a scape created as a route through which Richard must pass in his personal journey.
It is a measure of Abrahamson’s skill as a film-maker that the work avoids drowning in solipsism, which is not to say that it doesn’t splutter on occasions. But What Richard Did is not social realism, nor is it intended to be. It is primarily a character piece, a languid art-house film, and as such it insulates itself from the duties of docudrama.
If there’s a flaw it’s not so much in the film itself as in the language that surrounds it. Its publicity, and opening, have been marked by one particular dichotomy: the film’s audience arrives certain of the one thing its maker insists it is not.
Each interview with Abrahamson has involved a ping-pong of questioning. The interviewer mentions the violent death, outside Club Anabel, of Brian Murphy late in the summer of 2000. And the director politely repudiates the suggestion that this is the focus of What Richard Did.
“From the outset, I think it’s important to say that the film is a fiction and there are no character parallels to real events!” he told Totally Dublin. “We took a book (Bad Day in Blackrock, by Kevin Power), which was itself fictionalised, although resonant with real events, and we took that even further. But I think the privilege of art, and my luxury as an artist, is having people not have immediate, knee-jerk reactions to things.”
Asked by The Irish Times if he approached the Murphy family, he responded in the negative, because he sees this as a fictional film. “Informally, by people who know people, I have been able to say: ‘This is not the Anabel’s film.’ ” It could, he has said, be based on any number of similar such events from recent years.
Yet, although true, and although Abrahamson may say there are no “character parallels”, the film contains other direct and indirect parallels, so that in its lineage, and in the absence of an alternative, What Richard Did certainly is the Anabel’s film.
None of which is to undermine Abrahamson’s assertions about the privilege of art. He has that right, and it is a relief that he rather than someone far less competent took on such a theme.
As a film loosely based on a book that itself was at a remove from the incident, it is arguably the third iteration of the narrative that stemmed from this terrible event. The first was not Kevin Power’s literary take but the journalism that preceded it, which presented the trial as a classic story of spoilt children of the rich being protected from justice (“Posh Porridge: Murphy attack duo sent to cushy Midlands prison and third can finish exams before jail”) or as a nightmare for the middle classes (“Brian Murphy trial tore Middle Ireland apart”).
In each iteration the fascination has been with the perpetrators over the victim, each an evolution until What Richard Did presents a likeable, searching soul as accidental killer (played superbly by Jack Reynor). It is here that it most successfully separates itself from our world, most obviously distances itself from what, coldly, can be called “the source material”.
But it cannot shed its origins so easily. Watching it, one can’t help but wonder what the Murphy family make of the film. Will they see it? Do they turn away each time a bus passes by, with title and critical acclaim writ large?
After the original verdict, Brian Murphy’s mother, Mary, concluded her victim-impact statement with this: “Where is my baby in all of this? I can’t find him. He’s lost; I’m lost. Where is my pride and joy; my full-of- confidence child; my crazy, exuberant, full-of-cheer, larger- than-life child; my naive, far-from- perfect child; who did some silly things and some fabulous things?”
There have been several versions of this story; but her reality still resonates most.