Three exciting new Irish films had the Tribeca Film Festival crowds buzzing. 'What Richard Did' is an intense fictional telling of an all too real story about a deadly assault in Dublin. Also screened was Irish director Neil Jordan’s 'Byzantium,' with Saoirse Ronan as a 200-year-old teenage vampire. 'Run and Jump,' one of the most distinctive new Irish films about love and marriage seen in years, also made a big impression. Cahir O'Doherty reviews the three films and talks to the award winning Irish director Lenny Abrahamson.
By the end of this year the name of Dublin-born director Lenny Abrahamson, 47, will probably be familiar to you as Neil Jordan’s or Jim Sheridan’s. That’s if he isn’t already.
After all, Abrahamson has made some of the most striking new Irish films of the last decade, including 'Adam and Paul' and 'Garage.' But at last week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York Abrahamson became the toast of the circuit for 'What Richard Did,' his immensely skilful examination of Irish teens and the fatal romantic jealousies that erupt without warning among them.
Abrahamson’s star is on the rise. Currently he’s directing Michael Fassbender alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson in 'Frank,' a highly anticipated new film about a young wannabe musician (Gleeson) who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a band of eccentric pop musicians led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his terrifying sidekick Clara (Gyllenhaal).
But first there’s 'What Richard Did.' Based loosely based on Kevin Power’s book 'Bad Day in Blackrock,' a fictionalized account of the notorious real-life deadly assault on Irish teen Brian Murphy outside the Burlington Hotel in Dublin in 2000. Abrahamson’s film won the Best Irish Film of the Year award at the 10th Irish Film and Television Awards and has gone on to become the most commercially successful Irish film of 2012.
That homegrown success looks like it’s about to be replicated here when 'What Richard Did' opens on May 10. Telling the story of a privileged and handsome Dublin teen with supportive parents who clearly dote on him, a group of rugby playing friends who think he can do no wrong and a golden future seemingly straight ahead, the film ends up critiquing social class and the moral collapse of a nation that prefers appearances to the truth.
In particular great things are expected for the film’s young breakout star Jack Reynor, 21, who has just been cast in the new 'Transformers' movie based on the strength of his performance in the Irish film.
“In the film Richard is the most popular boy in school, the most celebrated in his group,” Abrahamson tells the Irish Voice.
“I went to a similar kind of school to Richard, I grew up around the kind of boys he does. I know that world and I remembered the kind of pressure they were under. Having that kind of charmed life makes you particularly ill-equipped to deal with setbacks and difficulties when they arise. Particularly in having to come to terms with your own failures as a person. It becomes catastrophic for him when he behaves badly.”
What makes 'What Richard Did' so effective is that Abrahamson avoids creating a portrait of a killer. Instead he crafts a portrait of a real Irish boy.
There’s an arrogance to him which is encouraged in the circles that he comes from. There’s a kind of emptiness too that comes from a life led without the usual humiliating factors, which are also humanizing factors that most of us experience in our teens.
The upper crust teenagers in this film probably have more in common with their British and American counterparts than they do with other teenagers with different backgrounds in their own country, the film suggests.
“GAA became quite cool in the last couple of years here with middle class Dublin kids playing,” Abrahamson explains.
“But still there is a kind of bubbling sense of superiority among Richard’s friends about their own station. These lads think that the traditions of Irish rural life are not something they should be a part of.”
When the media spoke about the Brian Murphy case that inspired the film they made a big deal out of the fact that these kids were middle class. But that’s a crude connection, Abrahamson says.
“What happened with Richard happens outside clubs and bars around the world and involves all classes of people. It’s more about how young men behave and how they’re affected by drink,” he says.
Reynor’s stunning debut in the lead role has been the buzz of Tribeca. Abrahamson was also fortunate enough to cast Fassbender in 'Frank.' Does the director have an interest in young men who are teetering on the brink of sanity?
“Jack is incredibly comfortable on camera like all great film actors. I don’t think it’s something he’s had to work on. He’s a very thoughtful enquiring kind of actor,” says Abrahamson.
“He’s going on to bigger things now as the star of the new 'Transformers' film, and he’s done another DreamWorks film in the meantime. I can’t take the credit for his performance.
“With Michael Fassbender I was working with a very different kind of actor. You know you’re looking at the finished article. What he has probably more than anybody around at the moment is an incredible presence and charisma.
“Working on 'Frank' was an unusual project as he spends an awful lot of the film with his face hidden by this plastic fake head. Even given that, he’s still an incredibly strong presence on screen which is a testament to just how charismatic he is that that comes through.”
Another new Irish feature that wowed critics at Tribeca is 'Byzantium,' clearly Jordan’s most heartfelt and accomplished film in over two decades featuring a great performance from Saoirse Ronan, whose presence and acting skill turns this quietly affecting film into a completely absorbing meditation on love, life and death, and the endless quest to make it all mean something.
As the film opens we meet Eleanor (Ronan), who after 200 years of immortality as a teenage vampire finally finds someone she can tell her story to. It’s a welcome but dangerous confession though, because once people know it her life is immediately in danger.
Ronan owns the role, which sees her join the distinguished company of Fassbender and Reynor as one of the most accomplished Irish actors of her generation.
There’s a scene early on in the film in a seaside hotel that has become a sort of rest home for the elderly where Eleanor plays the piano (Ronan learned how to play it for the scene). All of her character’s history and yearning is conveyed in her haunted expression.
I expected a solid effort from Jordan on a supernatural theme he has returned to often (he’s obsessed with the way people can become trapped or freed by stories, their own or someone else’s) but I did not expect a career defining statement from the master Irish director.
As Eleanor’s mother, actress Gemma Arterton also delivers a star turn as an unexpectedly compassionate and charismatic vampire to Ronan’s tear away teenage daughter. Arterton’s vampire only preys on abusers and bullies, on men who torment others for profit or sport. She does this as revenge on the cruel men who ruined her own life, and to protect the weak from the unjust.
It’s a nice twist on the usual blood sucking monster theme, and that it works as well as it does is down to the two principal actresses who develop a credible mother-daughter relationship onscreen.
Meanwhile, 'Run and Jump' is Oscar nominated director Steph Green’s engagingly original bad romance film (Green was nominated for 'New Boy,' the brilliant short film based on a Roddy Doyle story).
The film opens after a stroke leaves a young Irish housewife’s husband fundamentally changed. She’s left to pick up the pieces in the wake of an unmendable tragedy.
Into their lives comes the buttoned down American doctor Ted Fielding (played by 'Saturday Night Live' veteran Will Forte) who wants to document the family’s recovery process.
At first the spirited young Vanetia (played with flawless Irish accent work by English actress Maxine Peake) resents Ted’s presence in their lives, but soon enough she’s strangely taken with him – as much as he is with her Irish charisma.
In the midst of one family a new family begins to emerge. It’s the most quietly affecting exploration of Irish family life that I’ve seen this year.