Wah-Wah: Less Postcolonialism, More Biopic

Richard E. Grant’s 2005 drama film Wah-Wah, which he both wrote and directed, portrays the disintegration of a young boy’s family as it mirrors the fall of the British Empire in Africa. Filmed and set in Swaziland, the movie teeters on the edge of a biopic, lifting much of its inspiration from the early life of Grant himself. Taking place in the 1960s, the movie – despite some quirky, old car type humor – brings the audience through a fairly grim set of personal events, opening with the young protagonist Ralph’s witnessing of his mother’s infidelity, with his father’s best friend, no less. Soon after, Ralph’s mother departs the household, leaving her young son alone with his father as the latter spirals downward into depression and alcoholism. As the film progresses, we see Ralph grow up into a young man with some understandably heavy baggage. Wracked with quiet abandonment issues in the aftermath of his mother’s departure and forced to deal with his father’s emotionally abusive drunkenness, in addition to the latter’s remarriage to an unconventional American stewardess, Ralph retreats into the world of the imaginary, delighting in puppet shows in musical theatre.

The film is notable in that despite the colonial and post-colonial backdrop and African setting, the film deals less with the political and far more with the personal. Very little screentime is devoted to the social, political, or cultural issues concerning whites in an African nation; instead, the majority of the movie follows Ralph’s development through his early to mid teen years, as he copes with his problematic home life and deteriorating family. That said, the film makes generous use of allegory; true, the broken family can be said to symbolize the breaking of British rule in Swaziland, but perhaps even more significantly, the production that Ralph participates in for the entertainment of Princess Margaret on the eve of Swaziland’s independence is none other than the musical Camelot. It is notable that the movie focuses in particular on the closing moment – the lamenting of a “brief, shining moment” during which Camelot still thrived. The play’s nostalgic conclusion is a more than subtle comparions, perhaps, between Arthur’s Camelot and the golden days of the British Empire – and on a third, more personal level, the happier days of Ralph’s own family.

Nicholas Hoult shines in his role as the fifteen-year-old Ralph, and is completely believable as a slightly older incarnation of Zac Fox, who portrays a younger version of the same character. Now perhaps known best for his role as Tony in the British teen drama Skins, as seen on E4, Hoult displays a more somber side to his repertoire in Wah-Wah. Hoult’s Ralph is a markedly different character from the brashly manipulative, yet popular and magnetic Tony. Ralph is withdrawn and quirky, dispaying an occasional childlike quality that seems startling in a teenager. Yet Hoult nonetheless imbues Ralph with a more subtle sort of charm and charisma. Ralph, after all, obtains a major role in Camelot, and shows off a sweet, lilting singing voice at his audition (a musical gift, as it turns out, that Tony would also share). He also “gets the girl” so to speak, and is shown in two brief scenes to be romantically entangled with a young woman in the production whose sole apparent purpose is to smile prettily and make goo goo eyes at Ralph.

All in all, Wah-Wah is a reasonably well put-together – if occasionally slow-paced – affair, and Nicholas Hoult’s offbeat charm and strong performance make up for a plot that sometimes drags. The movie’s greatest weakness may simply be that it lacks enough material for a film of its length. If one is looking for a movie that truly delves into colonial and post-colonial issues in British-African relations, look elsewhere, because Wah-Wah falls rather short of the cut. On the other hand, if family drama and exploration of the complexities of interpersonal interaction are more to one’s taste, then by all means, give this film a shot.

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