The obvious risk with autobiographical films is that audiences just might not in the end be interested in the same sort of story that the filmmaker wants to tell about himself. So it is with Wah-Wah, written and directed by Richard E. Grant
, who based it on his own childhood growing up in Swaziland in the years leading up to the end of British rule Ė Grant might want to focus most on the filmís dysfunctional (though fun in its own way) family and its effect on his young stand-in, but viewers may be left wondering whatís going on outside that melodrama. Itís a big world out there, and Grant only gives us teasing glances at it.
The boy at the center of everything is Ralph Compton, 11 years old in the filmís preamble, in which he watches (once literally, from the back seat) as his mother Lauren (Miranda Richardson
) screws a married man and then takes off with him. The divorce proves ugly and Ralph is sent off to boarding school, leaving his devastated father Harry (Gabriel Byrne
) behind, fending off the occasional advance from local females. The film starts properly three years later with the return home of Ralph, this time played by Nicholas Hoult
, sprouted quite a bit from his About a Boy days. Ralph comes back to find Harry just remarried, this time to an American stewardess heís known for six weeks, Ruby (Emily Watson
). Sheís a breath of warm air, waltzing right into this snobbish little colonial backwater and immediately breaks practically every one of their thousand little etiquettes Ė night and day to the waspish, scathing Lauren. But yet itís not enough to keep Harry from hitting the bottle hard. Harry drinks, Ruby frets, Ralph fumes, and occasionally Lauren returns just to stir things up to an even higher pitch. Article continues below
The backdrop to all the drama inside the Compton house (a cozy little colonial cottage, if you like that sort of thing) is the fact that itís 1969 and the sun is about to set on this corner of the British Empire. The colonials are about to take down the Union Jack and hand the country back to the Swazis Ė Princess Margaret is coming to do the honors. The problem being that nobody seems to know what theyíre going to do after Independence. The other problem being that Grantís script (adapted from parts of his With Nails autobiography) doesnít really address this part of the story in any depth. Thereís some perfunctory noise made about Independence, and some easy fun is had at the expense of the clueless colonials, who decide to mark the occasion by putting on an amateur performance of Camelot in a Waiting for Guffman-esque subplot. Itís hard to tell what the tone is through the parts of the film not dealing with the Comptonís dysfunctionality, as it seems to sway somewhere between terribly relevant drama (the Patrick Doyle score is far more serious than the subject matter deserves) and straight farce.
Quite serious script and tone problems aside, the film at least shows Grant to be an excellent director of actors, all of whom deliver wonderfully warm, natural performances (this is ironic, given that as a performer, Grant has tended to shrill caricatures, nothing close to which youíll find here). The usually dour Byrne has a surprisingly light touch here, playing a generally decent man who turns monstrous with drink but returns quickly to his winking, jolly self in the morning. Watson is nothing short of fantastic, wearing her big, broad American accent like a bullhorn, scattering all before her. Together they make for a smart and likeable couple, the kind of parents one can actually see a child suffering through some truly horrendous domestic scenes in order to stay with.
Given how much raw material there is to go on, itís surprising that Wah-Wah doesnít feel meatier than it does. Itís a flippant and confused film, striving for dabs of comedy here, some lashes of drama over there, and rumbling to a close with some shameless twanging of the heartstrings. Itís a story not quite worthy of those on screen who are telling it.