Reviewed By PaulBryant
Posted 06/05/06 08:08:19

"Colonial wishes, familial nightmares."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Wah-Wah is ostensibly a story about the problems of British colonial rule in Swaziland in the 1960s, as seen from the point of view of a colonial adolescent and his dysfunctional family. The film is also billed as a somewhat autobiographical account of director/writer Richard E. Grant’s experiences growing up in the African country as the son of a British government official (played here by Gabriel Byrne). Despite the interesting dramatic, personal, and political possibilities a story like this could conceivably bring up, Grant instead resorts to leaving no clichéd stone on the coming-of-age beaten-path unturned, shuffling together a loose narrative intermittently comprised of virginal drug-use, first-love tomfoolery, Stanley Kubrick, and inter-familial squabbling.

The title, by the way, refers to the how Gabriel Bryne’s second wife Ruby (an American played by Emily Watson) describes the ultra-polite, toffee-nosed English banter that the colonials in Swaziland spit back and forth at each other at lavish dinner parties and shady cricket matches. “It’s all just a bunch of wah-wah,” she cackles. But that’s later on. First we need to explain the character of Ralph, evidently meant to be Grant himself, who at the beginning of the film is seen in the back seat of a car watching his mother have sex with a British man not his father up front.

Turns out Ralph (played in his older years by Nicholas Hoult) is a passive observer to a lot of horrible things, mostly framed in acid-laced arguments between his father, Harry, and his increasingly bitter mother, Laureen (Miranda Richardson). His parents eventually split, and Ralph is sent off to boarding school, whereupon, through the magic of the timelapse-dissolve, he becomes a 15 year-old young man in the matter of minutes. Once back with his father, who has since married an American ex-stewardess named Ruby, Ralph sees that his father has developed a drinking problem. Meanwhile, Ralph struggles against Ruby’s good-hearted attempts to be his new mother, and languishes about in Swaziland trying to capture a semblance of idyllic youth.

It is upon Ralph's rearrival where the movie starts to show glaring weaknesses. The alcoholism of Gabriel Byrne’s Harry, for one thing, is so absurdly presented that we end up feeling neither sympathy for him nor his poor family who has to sit back and watch as he berates them and even, in the film’s most off-key moment, wields and shoots a pistol at Ralph. Because his drinking comes as an abrupt surprise – all of a sudden he downs a half-bottle of scotch when Ralph won’t give him the key to the liquor cabinet – it doesn’t appear a sufficiently big enough dramatic problem until just-like-that he’s saturating himself in rye and letting off rounds at his only son.

This rapid onset of a major development of his character makes Gabriel Byrne’s performance look flawed – we don’t understand where his anger and sorrow, much less his addiction, are coming from. But really it is a faulty screenplay which is to blame. This is a shame because we understand the abstract psychological motivation behind why Harry might become dependent on drink, as he is cut off from his former country and way of life, and then has his wife run off with a colleague. The problem is that we don’t come to understand him as an organically.

Ralph is likewise muddy, despite a fine performance by Hoult. He gradually warms to Ruby, whose distaste with all things stuck-up and British attracts him, but the depth of his character is essentially reduced to a facial tick which arises whenever he is reminded of his troubled youth. He has a talent for singing, which unexpectedly becomes apparent when the colonials want to put on a performance of Camelot for Princess Margaret’s arrival, but he doesn’t have any particular passion for the play, or, apparently, much else. But he’s “growing up” so naturally he meets a girl who thinks he has nice eyes or something, and eventually his buddy offers him some marijuana and takes him to see A Clockwork Orange. However, never are all these disparate portions of Ralph’s life synthesized.

Instead, droplets of Ralph’s story and Harry’s story fall into various little puddles in want of pooling into a narrative. His love interest waxes only as his obsession with being a Kubrickian droog wanes; the rehearsal of Camelot becomes important only when Harry’s boozing is temporarily forgotten. The whole movie becomes a series of tentatively related vignettes towards an end we’re very suspicious is going to try and make us all weepy-eyed.

Also, it would have been interesting for Grant to attempt to tackle the issue of the decline of British colonialism in Africa in a more broad, revealing manner. In place of such development, the most we see of African citizens is a couple of distractingly ebullient servants and a group of English-learning schoolchildren. Likewise, the most we see of the rest of Swaziland are the requisite slinking-sunsets and one ritual procession about which Ralph’s best buddy exclaims, “it looks like National Geographic!” All in all, the limited nature of the things Grant has to say about Swaziland is only faintly more disappointing than the limited nature of what he says about the internal workings of a British colonial family occupying the region, which is to say the entire effort is quite a let down.

In the end I guess the only way I could precisely and appropriately capture my disenchantment with the movie would be to play a couple of titular notes on a sad trombone, which you can imagine me doing… now.

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