Worth A Look: 44.83%
Just Average: 3.45%
Pretty Crappy: 20.69%
3 reviews, 11 user ratings
by Marc Kandel
"Wah Wah" is director Richard E. Grant’s semi-autobiographical tale of a boy growing up amid familial upheaval and strife mirroring the dying throes of English Colonialism in Africa. This is Grant’s first time in the director’s chair, and he has a great deal to be proud of. The story treads familiar ground yet is engaging, the visuals and atmosphere memorable (you can feel the baking African heat in every moment), the performances stellar (Gabriel Byrne’s best in years).The tale is one we have seen many times onscreen- it's the execution that brings success. Themes of growing up, divorce, reconciliation, remarriage, disease, defeat- these elements are all grist for the movie/play mill, and I have a low tolerance having seen them time and time again as it can be a wearying journey (and believe me, this is no picnic), but the elements are blended together well and supported by strong actors at their best. The juxtaposition against the decaying colonial society desperately clinging to their pretensions to power and moral/cultural dominance works well and gives the story a nice historical undercurrent.
"Moral: Do NOT bring ennui-suffering wives to Africa."
Our introduction to Ralph Compton (Zachary Fox) is through his front row seat to his mother (Miranda Richardson)’s adultery with his father’s best friend. Walking in on your parents suddenly seems a distant second as far as top ten childhood scarring moments, and scar him it does as the horror of it all produces an immediate physical reaction in Ralph, repeated during times of familial stress; it's the first moment of the visualization, if not vocalization of “wah-wah” as Ralph’s face contorts into a open mouthed grimace of horror and revulsion. Harry Compton (Gabriel Byrne)’s marriage dissolves soon after, breaking him completely and steering him into alcoholism.
Ralph is left devastated, conflicted by his undying love for both his mother and father and inability to grasp why his parents cannot remain together. He retreats to his toy puppets, a world he has control over- it will be a reoccurring theme in the film, one used very cleverly (we are even given the impression of the puppets mouthing “wah-wah” during an instance, and even better there is a terrific scene where Ralph tries to choreograph his parents reconciling much like he would two marionettes).
Ralph is packed off to boarding school and returns (played with honesty and relish by Nicholas Hoult: About a Boy), forced to contend with his father’s debilitating alcoholism alongside his father’s new wife, Ruby (an absolutely adorable, fiercely capable Emily Watson), an American who has absolutely no time for the effete snobbery and hypocrisy of the English colonists, whose ridiculous mannerisms and affectations she dismisses and ridicules as “wah-wah”. Despite understandable resentment of the new woman in his father’s life, Ruby’s vivacious charm and warmth win Ralph over, particularly as Harry’s unchecked alcoholism forces their relationship to develop much faster as they need each other to cope with Harry’s increasingly violent, abusive behavior in his drinking hours.
Gabriel Byrne refuses to simply give us a one-note brute. Harry Compton is a gentle, honorable man, beloved by the people he teaches (he is the Minister of Education in the twilight regime), and adored by his son and new wife (though detested by his former spouse). The alcohol is a palpable enemy, and the alcoholism realistically portrayed as a disease rather than the atypical horrible behavior of a completely unlikable character. Harry’s inebriation almost reminds one of “The Exorcist”- it is another being entirely- a cruel, sharp creature tearing down his sober side’s life. But Grant wisely gives us plenty of time spent with a decent man, a father, a devoted husband, a teacher, completely broken by his wife’s betrayal and rejection, and crushed by the uncertainty of his future as his position in the colony is coming to an end.
This is the film’s strength- capturing realistic people and life events rather than empty melodrama or clichéd dysfunction. A first kiss, the anticipation of a play’s opening night, the hesitant love of a parent after one has been hurt by them, there are so many real moments to this film. It is a credit to a steady hand not milking easy moments, but finding the right ones to show us.
Potential Spoiler***Of course, there is the question of when the film should end- there is a plateau of happiness and stability reached where I really thought we’d see credits roll, which is suddenly cracked apart into tragedy again- nasty, drawn out tragedy, and were this not elements of someone’s life put to film I might detect a false note in shying away from the pleasant ending (and look, I’m all for destruction, but honestly, didn’t they earn just a bit of smiles?).
Interestingly enough I have noted this forced march to tragedy in other family or growing up films, taking place in the deep South- “The Man in the Moon” and “Steel Magnolias” spring to mind; it’s as if the overall theme of both the Brits of this picture and the overall theme of a goodly number of Southern pictures is “We lost the war/empire, and no matter what, life will never be good again- ashes, ashes.” Terrible thing to do to your audience, much less the characters. But look, I’m going with the autobiography slant on this, so let’s keep this my pet peeve and let you think about it for yourselves.*** End Spoiler
Grant’s acting career is well known amongst Robert Altman fans, and is a capable, charming, fun performer in just about anything he’s done; I will admit a personal affection for his scene stealing in Hudson Hawk (“Those Photomat Ahhhsshouweles!”) that may very well earn me a visit from a mob of torch wielding critics, but hey, I’m a New Yorker, used to angry mobs so fuck it. This is a hint of a promising career behind the camera, and I’d certainly see future offerings from him, particularly something in the comedic vein.“Wah Wah” is strong stuff- there is joy, pain, sadness, and as Alfred Bester wrote, there will be joy again; it’s not a movie that provides a clean or happy end, only life, with degrees of good & the bad. Not a journey I would easily take again, but worth a look.
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originally posted: 04/25/06 16:56:48
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