Gabriel Byrne as Harry Compton
Miranda Richardson as Laura Compton
Gabriel Byrne as Harry Compton
Emily Watson as Ruby Compton
Miranda Richardson as Lauren Compton
Julie Waters as Gwen Traherne
Nicholas Hoult as teen Ralph Compton
Celia Imrie as Lady Riva Hardwick
Fenella Woolgar as June Broughton
Zachary Fox as young Ralph Compton
Julian Wadham as Charles Bingham
Sid Mitchell as Vernon
Michael Richard as Tobias
Directed by Richard E. Grant
Richard E. Grant’s semi-autobiographical tale will either remind you of your dysfunctional family or make you thank heaven you didn’t have one, but either way the exceptional performances will vie for your heart share.
The long-time actor/first-time director begins his trip down memory lane with tweener Ralph Compton watching his mother bonk his father’s best friend. From there the terrain tilts and slopes as mom flees and dad strikes up a volatile affair with the bottle. Set against Swaziland of the late 60s and early 70s, Ralph’s happy/sad coming-of-age parallels the last throes of British rule.
What’s the worst thing that happened to you as a kid? If you’re Richard E. Grant it’s a toss-up. Long before launching his name in “Withnail and I” some two decades ago, the British actor was rehearsing the human comedy in a boyhood wracked with reversals, many of which came from his father’s drinking.
By now the subgenre of the alcohol-soaked descent is well known to moviegoers-a loved one, often a parent, heaps domestic abuse and Oscar-worthy emoting ensues. With his affecting visual memoir, Grant puts us through the familiar paces but also takes pains to leaven the despair.
As “Wah-Wah” begins, birds are circling over the Swazi brush in the shadowy light before dusk. Be worried, the score tells us, the sun is setting on Empire and independence remains an unknown. A car wends its way through the brush toward the scene of a trauma that will shatter 11-year old Ralph Compton (Zachary Fox)’s innocence and set in motion his struggle for sovereignty. Powerless from his backseat perch, Ralph is literally rocked by his mother (Miranda Richardson)’s adultery and subsequent walkout on him and his father Harry Compton (Gabriel Byrne), the colony’s Minister of Education. As if these twin blows aren’t enough for the introductory scenes, he’s shipped off to boarding school and out of his heartsick dad’s loving care.
Understandable, then, that Ralph somatizes stress in a silent roar, a tic that absorbs the shock of forces he can’t control. This being 1969, he takes refuge in a world of puppets rather than pop an SSR. Will this vulnerable youth retreat into fantasy to have his own say or find his voice building intimacy?
It’s a question that follows 14-year old Ralph (now played by Nicholas Hoult) upon his return to find his father both married and an alcoholic. Former air hostess Ruby (Emily Watson), the new mother, gets an ambivalent hello, but soon wins Ralph over with her rebellious, egalitarian spirit. She’s among the few straight-talkers in this overripe British outpost, where the “snooty baby talk” sounds like so much “Wah-Wah” to her American ears.
Leave it to a thespian to draw outstanding performances from his cast. Watson’s mimicry of the Colonial upper crust is both on the money and good for some laughs, and her accent is nasally perfect. (Grant’s wife was her vocal coach.) Given that Ralph is in virtually every scene, it’s not hard to see why Grant held out for Hoult, who’s had quite a spurt since “About a Boy” and “The Weather Man” and who nails the boy’s psychic intensity.
Stepmother and son will further bond in mutual protection against Harry’s off-character boozy rages. The movie’s power, which smacks you in the gut, derives from this take on emotional violence as only half of the aggressor’s truth and not to be confused with the loving soul allowed out by day when the demon possessor sleeps. Why on earth, you might wonder, wouldn’t Ruby immediately bolt?-until Byrne reminds us in a career-crowing performance that Harry’s as charming and decent in his sobriety as he is wrenching and ruinous on a bender.
“Wah-Wah”‘s boldest suggestion is that Ralph’s emergence into manhood was accelerated on a night when his sloshed father pulled a gun on him. Harry will again bring Ralph closer to his essential self in a climactic–and historically accurate-confession later on. Just as in real life, Grant’s alter-ego reacts to plot points of his father’s doing. But is this any way to treat a movie protagonist? As the narrative advances Ralph’s coming-of-age cedes important ground to the unrequited love story of Harry Compton. What the audience starts to surmise is that such digressions are the scenic route through a personal past and not the express lane to dramatic story. Art so imitates life in “Wah-Wah” it sometimes verges on role-play.
The “write what you know” approach is more easily pulled off in the film’s comedic scenes. Grant brings a wry sense of humor to the local expatriate fauna he knows all too well, and invites us to snicker at these incestuous hypocrites milling about in dapper white. But we also get a glimpse of their warmer colors as they mourn the impending loss of their African home and stage a production of “Camelot” for the new Swazi nation. Celia Imri stretches the snobbery of High Commissioner’s wife more than you’d credibly accept-research notwithstanding-but even she tries humility at Union Jack’s end. An earthier, more huggable character is Gwen Traherne, the dumped spouse of Lauren’s lover whom Julie Waters plays with big-hearted relish.
Richardson’s Lauren, on the other hand, earns hardly a trace of our sympathy. Perhaps if we knew her better we’d applaud her for following her heart. Instead, her coming and going plays like pure selfishness, a charge which gathers weight even when the evidence isn’t there.
Fans of nostalgia will appreciate the balance Grant struck between succulent social pokes and knock down, drag out dread. Greater cynics may deem the merry-making too obvious a thank you for feeling his pain. But what the hell?–there’s nothing like a little happy kitsch to loosen the sphincter.
A quick note on tech credits before we go “toodle pip”: Bravo to Gary Williamson and Sheena Napier, whose production design and costumes capture the era with lively panache. Patrick Doyle’s score aptly charts the film’s topography of moods, and Pierre Aïm’s cinematography does a dazzling job of contrasting the inbred culture with the natural terrain. Whisky clear editing by Isabelle Dedieu keeps us trained on Ralph’s point of view despite the script’s shifting focus.
All in all, did Grant make you well up? If you’re open to what goes on behind many closed doors, probably so. And that doesn’t happen with every movie.
The Bottom Line:
You’ll laugh, you’ll wah in this sentimental journey through Richard E. Grant’s Swaziland boyhood as the son of a raging alcoholic and the narcissist who set him off.