It is 1969 and Swaziland is on the brink of independence from the British Empire. But 11-year-old Ralph Compton (Zachery Fox), son of the colony's minister for education, Harry Compton (Gabriel Byrne) has other things on his mind. He has just witnessed his mother Lauren (Miranda Richarson) sleeping with his father's best friend (Ian Roberts). His father soon discovers the truth and the family is shattered by divorce, with young Ralph packed off the boarding school. When he returns at age 14, Ralph (Nicholas Hoult) is horrified to discover that his father has married a beautiful and spirited American named Ruby (Emily Watson). To make matters worse, his heavy drinking habits have turned to full-blown alcoholism. Much to Ralph's surprise Ruby becomes his greatest ally, as he battles to make sense of his unnaturally complicated home life, and stretches his creative wings as an actor.
Though it is billed as merely "semi-autobiographical", this bitter-sweet coming of age tale has all the hallmarks of painfully real experiences. Based on the childhood of writer / director Richard E Grant, the film often lapses into sentimentalism and melodrama, but is rescued time and again by the honesty and energy with which it is told, as well as by the superb cast.
Grant, already an acclaimed actor in films like Withnail and I and Gosford Park, makes both his screenwriting and directing debuts here, and does so in admirable style. Despite a tendency to wail and gnash, the script has a natural tone and a smooth pacing that is usually only found in more experienced screenwriters. Grant has sprinkled proceedings with quirky and insightful flashes of humour, a much-needed antidote to awful scenes of violence and emotional turmoil brought about by Harry's alcoholism.
Though it keeps its focus tightly on the trials of one dysfunctional family, the film also manages to capture some of the essence of colonial Swaziland at the beginning of the '70s. Granted this essence is restricted almost entirely to the country-club set in which the characters move, and the politics of the time is relegated to a footnote, but anyone who grew up in a former colony will find the film a delightfully (or perhaps disturbingly) nostalgic trip.
Grant shot the film on an extremely tight schedule in only seven weeks, but he and his seasoned crew (many of them French) have still managed to put together a consistently high-quality end product. Even more impressive are the performances Grant manages to extract from his cast in such a short period of time. Of course it helps to have such luminaries as Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richarson and Emily Watson on board, but Grant definitely makes good use of their talents and their obvious chemistry with each other. Nicholas Hoult - who the world fell in love with in About a Boy - is particularly good in his role as the older Ralph.
Wah-wah is far from a perfect film, but it has a good heart, an engaging verve and an honest voice. Better still it gives us a glance at Richard E Grant's talents for storytelling - both as writer and director. Let's hope this is the first of many more films.
- Alistair Fairweather
An autobiographical tale about the young Richard E Grant's experiences in 1960s Swaziland.
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