Richard E. Grant is a noted British actor (WITHNAIL AND I) and a terrific diarist
(his With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant are a must read for any cineaste).
For his feature film directorial debut, WAH-WAH, he has mined his own life and crafted a
clear-eyed but moving look at life in a very close-knit expatriate community in Swaziland.
Several of my fellow critics who saw early screenings of the film have raised issue
with Grant's depiction of the African natives -- for the most part, they are practically invisible.
I guess that these men and women might not fully understand or recall the insular world that
British colonials created in their various outposts. For example, the 1987 true crime movie
WHITE MISCHIEF is set in a similarly sealed community. That WAH-WAH is also filtered
through the mind's eye of a young boy (who ages from about 10 to 15 over the course of
the movie) is another reason why the outside world won't be depicted.
Grant's alter ego in the film is called Ralph and is first seen (portrayed by Zachary
Fox) asleep in the back seat of a car. As he awakens, he sees his mother Lauren (Miranda
Richardson) first kissing, then having sex with his father's friend John Traherne (Ian Roberts).
Ralph is obviously traumatized by the event and develops a facial tic as a result. He also
knows enough not to say anything to his father Harry (Gabriel Byrne) but it isn't long before
Harry figures out the truth and confronts Traherne in public. The fallout results in Lauren
leaving the family. There's a particularly poignant scene of Ralph finding a glass with
his mother's lipstick on it, which he holds as a keepsake.
Once his wife has left, though, Harry begins to come undone and seeks refuge in
alcohol. He pushes off the advances of Traherne's wife Gwen (Julie Walters) and
eventually decides that the best thing for Ralph is boarding school. Three years pass and
Ralph (now played by Nicholas Hoult, who made a wonderful impression in ABOUT A BOY)
returns to find that his dad has remarried. It's not Gwen, though, as Ralph thinks, but
instead is Ruby (Emily Watson), a free-spirited American airline stewardess who met
Harry a mere six weeks earlier. Ralph at first rejects Ruby -- mainly because she is not
Lauren -- but gradually warms to her as she exhibits an astringent sense of humor and
rejects the upper crust attitudes of the insular community. (Indeed, the film's title comes
from Ruby: she despises the various British slang and refers to it as so much "wah-wah.")
The remainder of the film traces the growing tensions in the family as Harry's
drinking takes a toll on both Ruby and Ralph. After Harry pulls a gun on him, Ralph
decides to seek an intervention and consults a local doctor. At the same time, as
Britain decides to hand over independence to Swaziland, Ralph is making his own
tentative steps toward separation from his family.
Grant has written a very frank look at the fallout from the breakup of his parents'
marriage. WAH-WAH is strongly acted, with Hoult anchoring the film as Ralph and
veterans Richardson, Byrne and Watson all creating memorable characters. There's
also strong support from Julie Walters, Fenella Woolgar, Celia Imrie and Julian
Wadham. Grant's daughter Olivia also makes an impression as a love interest for
As a directorial debut, WAH-WAH demonstrates promise. Grant eschews flashy
camera work to concentrate on the fine actors. If there's some flaws to the script (a
production of CAMELOT by the locals isn't as integrated as it perhaps could be),
the basic thrust still hits most of the marks.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief sexuality
Running time: 99 min.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.