The death throes of an empire are never pretty to watch, but they're an absolute unicorn leaping over a rainbow compared with the twitch of the marital death nerve in Richard E. Grant's semiautobiographical directorial debut.
Grant, the actor, is best known stateside for his roles in the culty favorites How to Get Ahead in Advertising and Withnail & I, but he's just as interesting behind the camera, and Wah-Wah contains some arresting visual moments that stick with you long after the film's fairly standard take on alcoholism and adultery fade away. One of those moments — a match-dissolve that overlays the face of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange atop that of teenage protagonist Ralph (About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult) — is downright chilling.
The film might be creepy, but this isn't a thriller. It's an emotional train wreck, piled high with the final flailings of Old Blighty's independence-minded colony Swaziland, where Grant grew up and Wah-Wah is set. It's 1969 and Ralph's mother (Miranda Richardson) has left bottle-happy husband Harry (Gabriel Byrne, channeling Shaun of the Dead's Bill Nighy) in the literal lurch. Besotted, he packs young Ralph (Zac Fox) off to boarding school, where he graduates into Hoult and returns home to find that dad has remarried Ruby (Emily Watson), a brash, vivacious American. Predictably, Ralph is initially cool toward the new woman in his life, but when she proves to be, well, brash and American, his resolve collapses and they become fast friends in the household war against dad's drinking.
The film's title derives from Ruby's sensibly dismissive term for the British habit of upgrading baby talk into conversational slang. "Toodle pip" and the like are the sort of stiff-upper-lip twittery that doomed the British Empire from the start: It's difficult to be a lord and master when you go around all day minus your pronouns, as in "Can't stay.
Must trot. Ta ta."
As the household becomes increasingly fractious (and, at times, very nearly lethal), Ralph accrues the scars befitting his metaphorical role as the flares-wearing face of the New Briton. Hoult, so good in the Weitz brothers' About a Boy, is equally strong here, matching Byrne's hysterics with an almost Zen-like calm broken only by the occasional flash of inner torment sailing across his face.
Watson's Ruby is the odd girl out, having little patience with the finer points of social conduct in this royal backwater. At one point she breaks the cardinal rule of not speaking to one's (alleged) better half before being spoken to and is banished from the weekly cricket match. She takes Ralph with her, however, and their receding laughter is like a breath of fresh air in the suffocating casket of colonialism.
Wah-Wah is never less than good but it's also never quite great. It is interesting, however, from a non-royal point of view, like viewing an old Super-8 home movie of someone else's family, which, however alien it might seem is also strangely, worryingly familiar. Grade: B