The ’60s upend African life in ‘Wah-Wah’
August 3, 2006
The Swaziland of 1968, the setting for the film “Wah-Wah,” is in the throes of upheaval, both anticipated and in progress, local and global. The tiny nation in southeast Africa is about to gain independence, after nearly a century as a British protectorate. And it being the late ’60s, social changes are sweeping even into Swaziland, mainly through the local British administrators. It’s not exactly Swinging London, but pot-smoking, wife-swapping and youthful rebelliousness have become part of the culture.
The directorial and writing debut by Richard E. Grant – a busy actor whose credits include “Mountains of the Moon,” “L.A. Story” and frequent membership in Robert Altman’s ensemble – was ripped from Grant’s own childhood. Grant, like protagonist, Ralphie Compton (Nicholas Hoult), was entering his teens in 1968; his father, like the film’s Harry Compton (Gabriel Byrne), was the British minister of education in colonial Swaziland. And the shaky social foundation that is the undercurrent for all that happens in “Wah-Wah” has the feel of real life, keenly observed and deeply felt by Grant.The film opens with a scene that skillfully sets the stage, in emotion and story; that so much can be said with a brief, mostly silent introduction makes Grant a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Two adults are in the front seat of a car, while a child sleeps in the back. We haven’t made their acquaintance yet, but Grant conveys the sense of something illicit and secretive. The amorous couple tries to hide its activities from the young passenger; the boy, in turn, is only feigning sleep, and keeps a half-open eye on the action.The woman is Lauren Compton (Miranda Richardson), wife of Harry and mother of Ralphie. The man, of course, was not her husband, but one-half of one of the Comptons’ closest couple friends. The mood in the Compton house – a luxurious spread that reeks of colonial wealth and status – is sour and even violent as Lauren and Harry act out the final scenes of their marriage. Their effort to protect Ralphie is perfunctory; the damage already wreaked on the boy is evident in the facial tic he has developed. One morning, Lauren wakes Ralphie to say her goodbyes.
Into the breach, with lightning speed, steps Ruby (Emily Watson), a feisty, cute American who is certain that these attributes will set all to right. But Ruby married Harry in haste, unaware of the demons – a bottle-a-day whiskey habit, mostly – that Harry brings to the union. Ruby’s can-do spirit isn’t quite the match for the historical sea of changes that weigh on Harry.Virtually all of the other plot lines of “Wah-Wah” seem hardly worth mentioning. (Grant himself doesn’t seem to have much attachment to them.) Ralphie gets the lead role in a production of “Camelot,” but we don’t see him make a single rehearsal before opening night. The film’s title comes from the cutesy phrases the colonialists speak, but once that point is made, the use of the phrases drops away. The final act is terribly routine; the lead-up to the final act is terribly hard to believe.But “Wah-Wah” adds up to more of the sum of these parts. The film is about family interaction in the face of changing times, and the characters and actors count for more than story lines. Grant wisely lets the trio of Byrne, Watson and Hoult take charge. The director has learned a lot from the other side of the camera, and has a strong feel for the various emotional strands of his childhood. The result is a convincing portrait of a family fighting themselves, fighting each other, and fighting the tides of change.
“Wah-Wah” shows Sunday and Monday, Aug. 6-7, at Paepcke Auditorium, in the SummerFilms series.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org