In 1968 the small country of Swaziland in southeastern Africa declared its independence from Britain, ending sixty-six years of British colonial administration. One British national who grew up in Swaziland during the last years of British rule is actor and writer, Richard E. Grant. Eager to direct a film, in 2005 he got the backing necessary to make a film based upon memories of his young life in colonial Africa, memories that touched only lightly upon the political but more heavily upon his family concerns. An independent feature, Grant’s film was released in 2005 with the wonderful title, Wah-Wah.
Each week I grab off the library shelves a couple of movies to watch on late evenings, and many times the DVDs are almost random picks, quickly chosen without much consideration. Too often eyelids grow heavy after fifteen wasted minutes of bad, boring, duh-type moviemaking, but then sometimes I’m lucky, unknowingly picking up a lost or forgotten jewel of filmmaking, then sitting happily, an enchanted captive until the final credits roll past. That was the case with Richard E. Grant’s Wah-Wah.
Even though the timeline of Grant’s film coincides with the coming of Swaziland independence, his story is basically one of family and the struggles that fill that smaller arena, only superficially influenced by the approaching loss of British colonial hegemony. A large part of the story is about growing up and begins with young Ralph Compton (Grant) witnessing his mother’s indiscretions with a family friend, hard knowledge for a ten year-old, and made even harder when his mother runs away with the man. Half destroyed by his wife’s actions, Ralph’s father sinks into alcoholism and depression, but then not too long after brings home an American wife. This step-mother is not easily accepted by Ralph, but her loud and brusque American charm gradually wins him over. Soon after he has come to accept the new wife-step-mother, his real mother turns up suddenly wanting to ‘come home.’ The American wife packs her bags and leaves, unwilling to pit herself against this rival. But it isn’t long before the repentant mother’s bad character is unveiled and both husband and son spurn her weak apologies and entreaties, sending her packing. Still much in love with the damaged and alcoholic husband, the American returns, most of the family’s bitter knots coming untangled in the end.
Grant’s writing and direction skillfully blend warmth and humor, and with the emotional scenes make for a balanced story about people you both laugh and cry with. The movie was filmed on location in Swaziland, a beautiful background enhanced all the more by the well chosen music and soundtrack. Without single exception the actors are one and all outstanding. Gabriel Byrne gives maybe his best performance ever as the cuckolded and alcoholic husband, and Miranda Richardson too, is good as the straying wife and mother. Nicholas Hoult plays the teenage Ralph with a perfect blend of rebellion and charm, his childhood castles shattered by parents he can’t stop loving. Emily Watson just about steals the show as Ruby, the former airline stewardess from America, new wife and step-mother. The title of the picture comes from a funny scene where the ex-stewardess mimics hoity-toity upperclass British colonials talking to each other. To her it’s all “Wah-wah, wah, wah, wah-wah.”
Looking for production details on IMDb I found a disappointing fact. The movie was made for $7,000,000, but then grossed only $233,000 at the box office. Discouraging to see these indications that so few moviegoers are attracted to movies without bombs, bullets and mayhem.
If browsing Redbox or Netflix one day, you stumble across a movie with the unusual title of Wah-Wah, grab it up. Chances are good you’ll like it.