Wah-Wah, 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).


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character (called Ralph Compton in the film) has managed to find a way to cope, so the out-dated colonial era has been replaced by the euphoria of the newly independent Swazis.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 silent scream.

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.