Written and directed by first-timer Richard E. Grant (who is, to be fair, a sharply talented actor and wit in his own right), Wah-Wah begins innocently enough but quickly devolves into a mess of clichés. Based on Grant’s coming of age in ’60s Swaziland as the country received its liberty from Great Britain, the uneven film enticed some of England’s top-notch talent to sign on, so it is infinitely curious that the end product doesn’t quite add up. While the film isn’t exactly terrible, it is decidedly mediocre. Given such a potentially cinematic subject, this is a cardinal sin.
On the eve of the country’s independence, meek young Ralph Compton (played as a child by Zachary Fox) is more concerned with the comings and goings of his volatile parents Harry and Lauren (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, both unfortunately saddled with thin caricatures), who are just barely struggling to keep up appearances for the uptight British countrymen that seem to have nothing better to do than judge them. Mrs. Compton is a bit of a tart who is apparently so hard up for affection that she has sex with her married lover in the front seat of a car in full view of her young son (something that obviously affects Ralph in a major way). Mr. Compton is a relatively clueless, loving military man with a whopper of a drinking problem who seems oblivious to everything going on. The unhappy Mrs. soon decides to leave Africa, her husband, and her impressionable son for her lover, much to the chagrin of his wife (esteemed British thespian Julie Walters, who could likely play a doddering old British lady like this in her sleep). Since dad is such a mess himself, Ralph is soon sent packing to boarding school.
Years go by and Ralph returns to Swaziland a sensitive young man with a penchant for crafting elaborate puppet shows. At this stage of his life, Ralph is played by About a Boy‘s gifted Nicholas Hoult, who adeptly captures the turmoil and gawkiness of the displaced youth. Upon returning to the community of Brits that is essentially segregated from the Africans, Ralph is hit with a whopper of a surprise: his father has taken a new wife, an American named Ruby (played with warmth and grace by Emily Watson). Ruby is a brash “former air hostess” who relentlessly speaks her mind, which is a horrifying concept for the tightly clinched, “proper” British ladies living in the community. While the film tries to point out the hypocritical irony of the upper-crust, morality-driven women being just short of common prostitutes (they are all sleeping with each other’s husbands, after all), it seems to be merely hinted at, never fully-formed.
The two clash at first but over time Ruby becomes like a second mother to the boy, which proves to be a huge problem when the first Mrs. Compton returns to stake claim to her family. Hoult and Watson, in fact, seem to be acting in another film altogether: they endow their characters with such depth and tenderness that they seem almost out of place in such a flimsy, afterthought of a film. Watson, in particular, has become (since her explosive 1996 film debut in Lars Von Trier’s crushing Breaking the Waves) the kind of actress that somehow can elevate whatever material she gets her hands on to another level. Though she isn’t getting juicy leads like she did 10 years ago, she is thankfully still managing to steal scenes in pivotal supporting roles like Ruby.
As Harry’s alcoholism begins to get more and more intense and Lauren makes a venom-fueled return to the film, the script begins to awkwardly lunge towards melodrama. It is the abrupt, uneven mix of sweet nostalgia, unfunny jokes, and waxy dramatics that are eventually the film’s undoing. While the film itself is entertaining and not threatening in the least, there is an amateurish quality to the proceedings that is off-putting: Wah-Wah is not unlike junk food: tasty, but it may leave you feeling unfulfilled.
Grant is unfortunately an obvious novice as a director; one that can’t seem to find his focus, despite managing a couple concise moments of clarity through character (such as with the scenes between Ruby and Ralph as they cope with Harry’s disease together). These small, well-built contributions are effective enough, but there is a disarming lack of perspective and culture missing from the project that is almost alarming: for a film set in Africa, there are disturbingly few Africans present in significant roles. Unfortunately, the genuinely cinematic moments are few and far between, and are generally courtesy of the skillful performances. Chalk Wah Wah up as yet another sweet, misguided film that could have potentially achieved greatness in a more seasoned filmmaker’s hands.