Wah-Wah Review

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In the last days of British-ruled Swaziland, young Ralph Compton (Hoult) witnesses at close quarters his mother’s adultery, hastening the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and his father’s subsequent slide into alcoholism…


Making his debut as writer-director at the ripe age of 48, Richard E. Grant draws from his own childhood in Swaziland to portray the last days of the British Empire in Africa. Zachary Fox plays Ralph Compton (a thinly disguised Grant) aged 11, thrust headlong into the affairs of his parents, a bickering couple memorably played (as in David Cronenberg’s Spider) by Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne.

By the time Ralph (now played by Nicholas Hoult) returns from boarding school at age 15, his parents have divorced, though their rows continue, even after his father has married Ruby, a brassy American played, very much against type, by Emily Watson. Through Ruby’s eyes, Ralphie begins to see the British colonials for what they are: a bunch of burned-out snobs and social climbers whose Jeeves And Wooster-ish verbal mannerisms Ruby derides as so much “wah-wah”.

Shot on location, the film makes good use of Pierre Aïm’s fine cinematography to evoke a bygone era without reliance on the perverse nostalgia of Merchant Ivory-type tales. Instead, in both the dialogue and direction, Grant employs the same wry wit and eye for detailed observation which made his memoir, With Nails, so memorable. Along the way, he draws nuanced performances from a top-drawer British cast, providing further proof that actors often do make the best directors.

An unforced, engaging and surprisingly incisive account of the disintegration of British rule in Africa.