Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Based on events in first-time director Richard E Grant's own childhood, Wah-Wah charts the disintegration of a family living in a colonial outpost in Swaziland as the country prepares for independence. Young Ralph is 11 when he witnesses his mother's adultery and his parents' marriage falls apart. After his mother leaves, he goes away to boarding school, returning at the age of 14 to find his now alcoholic father newly married to Ruby, an American woman he has known for just six weeks. In this isolated world, at the end of an era, Ralph struggles to establish his own identity.

With a sterling cast, who know their roles inside out, Grant's inexperience is quite invisible; his confidence in familiar surroundings enables him to recreate in exquisite detail the dying days of empire. The film was shot entirely within Swaziland itself, with the wide-open landscape contributing a strong sense of its own character to the finished piece.

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Deft references to British politics and the media, including a delightful sequence in which Ralph seeks to model himself on Little Alex from A Clockwork Orange, remind us that this is the early Seventies, whilst the script explores with fascination the contrasts between that era and the pre-war lifestyle of the upper-class colonials, particularly with regard to their sexual hypocrisy. Despite this, it never loses its interest in them as human beings. The title of the film comes from Ruby's description of the way they speak, yet their culture is as fondly preserved as that of the younger characters and, indeed, of the Swazis themselves.

As Ralph's broken-hearted father Harry, Gabriel Byrne, always a reliable actor, turns in one of his all-time best performances. Though some of his behaviour is truly monstrous, it's always possible to retain some sympathy for him and to see why his family and friends care about him so much. His scenes of rage are genuinely frightening, but Harry's love for his son always comes across and it's easy to see how he has become what he is.

Perhaps equally challenging is Miranda Richardson's role as the wayward mother, which is more difficult for the viewer to relate to, yet retains a degree of humanity. Astute wardrobe choices and clever scripting reveal almost in passing the extent of her frustration at her isolated life. By contrast, Emily Watson's Ruby is right where she wants to be, a character overflowing with positive energy, which Watson says made a pleasing change from what she's usually called upon to play. It's easier to like Ruby, but she's no less complex, her depth becoming apparent as she is forced to deal with the realities of her new husband's condition.

Meanwhile, as Ralph himself, newcomer Zachary Fox and, later, Nicholas Hoult, are both utterly convincing. They engage and communicate with the audience, even during protracted periods of silence. Hoult conveys the boy's tumultuous journey into adulthood with impressive range and a real sense of immediacy.

There are many examples out there of rambling family sagas of this sort which charm with an easy grace but often leave one unfulfilled. Wah-Wah is something different. Beautifully paced, it effectively conveys the passing of time without ever breaking down into episodic sketches. Though it deals with quite a weight of human misery, it is entertaining throughout and often quite uproariously funny. As such, it will appeal even to those viewers who wouldn't normally touch this sort of thing. It is, quite simply, a delight from beginning to end, and it comes highly recommended.

Reviewed on: 02 Jun 2006
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A boy grows up in a broken family as the winds of change blow through Swaziland.
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Read more Wah-Wah reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****
Scott Macdonald ****

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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