Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Don't be fooled. A few comic turns from Celia Imrie and Julie Walters as the sun goes down on the British Empire are inescapably enjoyable, but that's not what writer/director Richard E Grant is on about. This is the story of a boy growing up with a drunken father and a philandering mother. It could have been Sunningdale, rather than Swaziland. The Africans are either charming and illiterate, or sympathetic and well mannered.

Ralph/Ralphy/Popeye is a quiet, sensitive boy (Zachary Fox) and a confident, rebellious teenager (excellent Nicholas Hoult). His dad (Gabriel Byrne) works in some official capacity for the government. When dressed up, he wears a row of dangly medals on his starched, white dinner jacket, but at no point do you understand what they mean, or what he does. You're not quite sure whether to like him. He's weak (he drinks, blubs, shouts) and missing. His emotions have been squeezed to a pulp by Ralph's mum (exceptional Miranda Richardson), whose sex appeal lights fires in the front seat of the Merc with someone else's husband, while treating Harry, Popeye's pop, with cold disdain.

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Ralphy watches and the pain of his parents' relationship cuts deep. "Ask your mother to pass the salt," Harry says. Ralph winces as she hurls the saltcellar across the table. Later, she leaves. Ralph begs her not to, clinging, weeping. She finds such behaviour irritating. She says, "I'm sorry, I can't help it," or words to that effect, and quite soon Popeye is sent to boarding school and that's the end of it.

Except it's not. There's never an end to it, like there's never an end to the British Empire. Bits of it remain in one form or another always. Even after his dad gets married again, to a warm-hearted, loud-mouthed American (surprising Emily Watson), the wife that isn't there and the mother who deserted her son for another man haunts their memories and Ralph has grown tall and strong and can see what a hollow sham this colonial life is, fuelled on whisky, sex and snobbery, but when you're 15 it's easy to criticise because you're not in the running, neither dusty with disappointment, nor wet between the thighs.

Grant makes no attempt to play ironic games with the winds of change, or that political malarkey. Independence is handed over. Nothing much alters in the club. People talk of "going to Rhodesia", others rehearse Camelot for the visit of a hush-hush member of the royal family and Harry's drinking becomes dangerous. The film succeeds in untying the ribbon on the beautiful myth of God's own country. It's not about half-naked savages with spears; it's about infidelity and selfishness and dysfunction. The boy escapes into his puppet theatre. The father escapes into the bottle. The mother escapes.

Pip pip!

Reviewed on: 16 Aug 2005
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A boy grows up in a broken family as the winds of change blow through Swaziland.
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Jennie Kermode ****1/2
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Director: Richard E Grant

Writer: Richard E Grant

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Nicholas Hoult, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Julian Wadham, Fenella Woolgar, Sid Mitchell, Zachary Fox

Year: 2005

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/France/South Africa


EIFF 2005

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