97 mins, rated TBC, opening in cinemas on 22 June 2006.
(This review originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal).
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
In 1969, when Wah-Wah begins, the sun was setting on the British
Empire, and the remote colonial outpost of Swaziland, South East Africa
was in the process of gaining its independence. At the same time, the
teenaged Richard E Grant and his family were clinging to the last
vestiges of colonial life.
Grant, who wrote and directed this film, shows the gradual
disintegration of his family in parallel with the crumbling British
Empire. By the end of the film, just as Grant’s character (called Ralph
Compton in the film) has managed to find a way to cope, so the
out-dated colonial era has been replaced by the euphoria of the newly
independent Swazis. Grant has described his film as a ‘coming of age at
the end of an Age’ story.
Wah-Wah marks the directing and screenwriting debut of actor Richard E
Grant, best known for his role as Withnail in the cult classic Withnail
& I (Bruce Robinson, 1987). In his first film, Grant covers what he
knows best – his own life, and in particular his teenage years in
Swaziland, South-East Africa, beginning in 1969, during the dying days
of the British Empire. It’s a wise decision on Grant’s part, because he
brings to the film a clear vision that makes the story completely
plausible, no matter which way the slightly messy plot jumps. This is
real life – there’s no doubt about that.
It took Grant 10 years to make Wah-Wah, but only two-and-a-half months
for him to write the first draft. It was all in his head. Even when it
came to filming, he says all the camera placements came naturally to
him because he had lived it.
At the end of the film, there’s a note stating that certain people in
the film are fictitious, but that the facts are basically true. In
fact, the film is almost literally all true. Grant’s father was
Minister for Education in the 60s and 70s in Swaziland. The English
community there did engage in “white mischief”, drinking and partying
and having affairs with each other out of sheer boredom. Only the names
have been changed. Grant’s/ Ralph’s father and mother are Harry and
Lauren Compton (played by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson).
Grant says he has kept a diary “since I witnessed my mother’s adultery
at the age of nine”. This is how the film opens, with the young Ralph
Compton (Zac Fox) pretending to be asleep in the back seat of a
Mercedes as his mother has sex with his father’s best friend in the
front seat. Clearly Ralph’s parents have an unhappy marriage. Harry and
Lauren no longer speak to each other and funnel their conversations
through poor young Ralph. Ralph, understandably, is not handling this
at all well: he develops a disturbing facial tic which resembles a
When Lauren finally leaves, Ralph is extremely distressed, and it tips
Harry over into alcoholism. Years later, when Ralph (now played by
Nicholas Hoult) returns from boarding school, he finds that Harry has
remarried, and is drinking more than ever. The older Ralph finally
confronts him, with terrifying results.
Byrne and Richardson head a stellar British cast. No doubt Grant’s
acting reputation, and his writing too, helped him snag a classy
British cast, including Emily Watson, Celia Imrie, Julie Walters and
Fenella Woolgar. Gabriel Byrne, in particular, is quite superb in the
difficult role of Harry.
And the name Wah-Wah? It has nothing to do with electric guitar sound
effects. The name describes the sort of inane patois used by the
colonial English in those days: “toodle pip”, “what-ho” and so on. It’s
how Ralph’s (American) step-mother, played beautifully and unexpectedly
by Emily Watson, refers to this infuriating baby-talk.
This was the first film ever to be made in the Kingdom of Swaziland.
Grant was personally given permission to film by King Mswati III. It is
a British, French and South African co-production. The French
cinematographer, Pierre Aim, has captured the golden-red glow of the
Swazi countryside: it looks gorgeous.
But towards the end of the film, as we witness the rather chaotic
celebrations on Independence Day, we get the feeling of the chaos to
come. Today’s Swaziland is a monarchy, not a democracy, and its monarch
is known for his many wives. Swaziland also has one of the world’s
highest HIV infection rates.
The past really is another country.