Wah-wah

Actor-turned-writer-director Richard E. Grant's heavily autobiographical coming-of-age drama unfolds in Swaziland on the eve of its independence from England, which matters only to the degree that it affects the insular lives of the British expatriate community, which is to say not at all. Grant's lightly fictionalized stand-in, Ralph Compton (Zachary Fox),...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Actor-turned-writer-director Richard E. Grant's heavily autobiographical coming-of-age drama unfolds in Swaziland on the eve of its independence from England, which matters only to the degree that it affects the insular lives of the British expatriate community, which is to say not at all. Grant's lightly fictionalized stand-in, Ralph Compton (Zachary Fox), lives with his hard-drinking father, Harry (Gabriel Byrne), a highly placed cog in the education ministry, and his bitterly bored and unhappy mother, Lauren (Miranda Richardson), who's carrying on a none-too-subtle affair with Harry's best friend, John Traherne (Ian Roberts). Her infidelity is par for the course and her reputation might even have withstood her decision to run off with Traherne, leaving his wife, Gwennie (Julie Walters), weeping in the lurch. But Lauren commits the cardinal sin of divorcing Harry, which is just not done in boozing, hypocritical, adulterous and snobbish expatriate circles, and which makes her persona non grata. Young Ralph, already traumatized by having witnessed Lauren and John in the act, can't handle the aftershocks — particularly the attentions of the colony's unattached women, now that the still-handsome Harry is back on the market — and demands to be sent to boarding school. When he returns two years later (now played by Nicholas Hoult), he finds his father remarried to brash American stewardess Ruby (Emily Watson) and drinking more intemperately than ever. Ralph initially resents Ruby, a mod little firecracker with zero patience for the snooty Brits and their hidebound rules of conduct — she dubs their twee "tiddly-boo"- and "pip-pip"-peppered brand of rarified baby talk a load of wah-wah and flatly refuses to kowtow to imperious queen bee Lady Riva Hardwick (Celia Imrie). But her free-spiritedness is liberating, and it emboldens Ralph to defy his father and take part in an amateur production of Camelot, where he finds two great loves: Theater and pretty cast mate Monica (Olivia Grant, the director's daughter). Following the dictum that you should write what you know, Grant mines his own youth in late '60s Africa but comes up a little short. Though the raw material is juicy stuff, the details and the larger picture never come together and the cast is uneven: Byrne has intensity to burn, while Richardson, Walters and Imrie nail their one-note roles. And although Watson is charming, she's unconvincing as an American, and Hoult is a bit of a blank page — not an asset in a pivotal character.

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