“Wah-Wah” is a semi-autobiographical tale set in South East Africa and based on the life of actor Richard Grant, who wrote and directed. The film takes place during the late sixties and early seventies and follows the travails of a British boy, Ralph Compton, who lives with his expatriate parents in their comfortable home in the country.
From the very beginning we know this is a family with issues. The husband, Harry is played by the excellent Gabriel Byrne. He and his wife, played with casual cruelty by Miranda Richardson, are constantly at odds. She’s clearly bored and unhappy trapped in the boondocks of Swaziland and he not knowing what else to do responds by drinking too much and lashing out. Poor Ralph is frequently caught in the middle and seeks refuge in his imagination, huddling alone in his room to a highly melodramatic score.
Gabriel Byrne’s Harry is a complex character. As Ralph’s self-absorbed alcoholic father he’s neither a villainous ogre nor a wise and compassionate figure. Instead he comes across as a conflicted man desperately trying to cling to a marriage and a country that is slipping away, as Swaziland seeks it’s independence from British rule.
Initially a dour film, it picks up significantly with the arrival of Harry’s new wife Ruby, an American flight attendant, played by a perky Emily Watson. In fact Ralph learns of his father’s marriage after the fact, when Harry drunkenly informs him that they were married after all of six-weeks of courtship. Needless to say Ralph is skeptical, especially on meeting the so not English, former “air hostess” who proceeds to topple all the carefully constructed walls of stoicism with the touch of a bull in a China shop. The notions of class and racial tensions help stoke the conflict within and outside the Compton family.
As Ralph moves into adolescence and gains some confidence he initially collides with the independent Ruby, however he soon discovers what an ally she can be. Together they enjoy challenging the rigidity of English society while trying to manage Harry’s drinking. However Ralph is soon torn between loyalty to his mother and the new American interloper, his step-mother Ruby.
“Wah-Wah” is a nice film that clearly comes from the heart. While the title is probably one of the worst I can remember the performances are strong and the story while familiar feels unique, largely due to the setting. I’m Erik Petersen for Movie Magazine International.
© 2006 - Erik Petersen - Air Date: 5/31/06
USA - 2005