Written and directed by Richard E. Grant
Scion Films, 2005
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Gabriel Byrne, Julie Walters, Julian Wadham, Celia Imrie
Filmed on location in Swaziland
Received a metascore of 61 at Metacritic: generally favorable reviews
Every family has its own language.
Actor and author Richard E. Grant made his directorial debut with this period comedy drama inspired by his own experiences growing up in colonial Africa in the sixties. Ralph Compton (Zachary Fox) is the 11-year old son of Harry (Gabriel Byrne), the minister of education in the British-controlled African nation of Swaziland. While Harry is a likeable and well-connected man, his marriage to Lauren (Miranda Richardson) is on shaky ground, and when he learns she’s been having an affair with one of his best friends, she leaves him and he begins drinking heavily. Harry sends Ralph to boarding school when things start to get unpleasant, and after two years he returns home to discover that some changes have been made. Ralph (now played by Nicholas Hoult) finds that his father is still drinking, but seems a more relaxed and better adjusted man — and has just remarried, having tied the knot with Ruby (Emily Watson), a former stewardess from America. Ralph naturally resists Ruby’s presence in the house, but the two become close, as Ruby indicates that she understands Ralph better than anyone else (and he senses the same). Meanwhile, the British start to withdraw from Swaziland. —Mark Deming, Rovi
With this semi-autobiographical tale of his childhood in Swaziland during the last days of the British Empire in Africa in 1960s, Grant relates the story of Ralph Compton, whose family’s disintegration mirrors the end of British rule. After witnessing his mother’s adultery with his father’s best friend, Ralph must survive not only boarding school but also his beloved father’s remarriage to Ruby, a fast-talking American Airlines stewardess, and his father’s gradual descent into alcoholism.–Wikipedia
Lauren: How dare you contradict me in front of a servant!
Harry: The Sphinx has spoken!
Young Ralph: What’s a gong, Dad?
Lauren: That stupid piece of metal bird shit they gave your father today.
Harry: Ask your mother to pass the salt.
Young Ralph: Why is Daddy’s medal stupid?
Lauren: Because all those idiots, dressed up like bloody vanilla ice creams think that it’s a suitable reward for enduring a lifetime of boredom out here in this middle of bloody nowhere, that’s why! If anyone deserves a medal, it’s me.
Harry: I need another drink.
Lauren: Oh, I bet you do.
Ralph: You look different.
Harry: Yes. I’ve got remarried.
Ralph: Who? Auntie Gwen?
Harry: No, you daft fool. She’s an American.
Ralph: How long have you known her?
Harry: Six weeks.
[at the cricket match]
Ruby: Go get ’em, Harry! (to Gwen) Harry said I’d be bored stiff, but I love it. (to Lady Hardwick) Hey, hi.
Lady Hardwick: I beg your pardon.
Gwen: Lady Hardwick is the wife of our resident High Commissioner.
Ruby: Oh, good for you, girl.
Lady Hardwick: Lady Hardwick to you. (to Gwen) And who might you be?
Gwen: Gwen Traherne. My husb–my ex-husband’s the engineer. We have met. Four times.
Lady Hardwick: I don’t think so.
Ruby: Oh, come on girls. Relax. I’m an American.
Lady Hardwick: How very hubbly-jubbly for you. Excuse me.
Harry: So, what day is it today?
Ruby: It’s Saturday, sweetie.
Harry: Oh, well then, it’ll be the hen with its ass in the air. No thanks, sweetie. I’m not hungry.
Ruby: Hey, honey, please. Yeah, why do we always have chicken on Saturday and beef on Sunday?
Ralph: Regina can’t read.
Harry: So, dolly boy’s mother here taught her to do a different meal for each day of the week. Clear? Got it? Comprendre?
Ruby: Then I’ll teach her to read.
Harry: The bloody hell you will.
Ralph: What’s wrong with you, Dad?
Harry: Nothing wrong with me, sonny boy.
Ruby: What is that supposed to mean?
Harry: Listen to yourself. Look at yourself. You’re nothing but a bloody common ex-air hostess.
Ruby: Fuck you, Harry!
Harry: I suppose you think this is all so bloody easy. Well, wake up! Just you wait until you lose everything. And I mean everything: wife, position, future, the whole damned kit and kaboodle. Come independence, we’re all on the scrap heap. So, wake up!
Ruby: That monster isn’t really him. You know that.
Ralph: Then why do you stay?
Ruby: I love him. I love your dad with every fiber of my being. I can’t help it. And I know you do, too.
Ralph: Why does he do this to us?
Ruby: You know, honestly I don’t think he can help himself.
Ralph: But I can. I’m getting out of here the day I finish school.
Ruby: That may be, Ralphie, but you never really get away, you know. It’s called “family!”
Ralph: Maybe. Maybe not. It’s just weird that every time my mother makes any kind of contact, he goes ballistic.
Harry (acting drunk): Ah, the welcoming committee! Perfect timing! Don’t you want to know where I’ve been?
Ruby: Where have you been?
Harry: To a post-independence educational strategy and budgeting meeting, if you really want to know.
Ruby: Translation, please?
Harry (in more sober tones): They asked me to stay on. Honorary adviser. Full salary. Full perks. All post-independence. What do you think of that!?
Harry: Ah ah. Language!
Ruby: How could you do that to us?
Harry: And you thought I was back on the old you-know-what!
Ruby: This is fabulous news, hon!
Harry: What do you think this little piece of metal is worth, Popeye?
Ralph: A big pile of money?
Harry: Oh, no. Just a lifetime, old boy. My lifetime.
Ralph: You deserve it, Dad.
Harry: Oh, bollocks.
Ruby: We are so proud of you.
Harry: Bollocks. Hmmm.
More promotional images are in the Gallery.
behind the scenes
More of Lozzie’s amazing screencaps (272 of them!) from this film are available in the Gallery.
Wah-Wah was generally met positively by critics. BBC Movies said it was “superbly performed and fluently shot”, but lamented its uninteresting subject. David Hughes of Empire magazine said that the film was “an unforced, engaging and surprisingly incisive account of the disintegration of British rule in Africa”. Time Out noted that “Gabriel Byrne gives a great performance as Ralph’s troubled father, Harry, and Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson are enjoyable as Harry’s wife and American lover”. Variety said that “above all, the film has a wonderful sense of ensemble in the portrayal of its inbred community, and the focus stays tight on the people rather than political events” and The Los Angeles Times said that “Grant opens up his life, not with embarrassment or explanation but with humanity and gratitude. Emotional, melodramatic and sentimental, the film unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve, and is the better for it.” Roger Ebert was less praising, noting that he “admired the movie and was happy to see it but can think of two other films about whites in Africa that do a better job of seeing their roles (“Nowhere in Africa” and “White Mischief”).”–Wikipedia page for Wah-Wah
As Ralph’s broken-hearted father Harry, Gabriel Byrne, always a reliable actor, turns in one of his all-time best performances. Though some of his behaviour is truly monstrous, it’s always possible to retain some sympathy for him and to see why his family and friends care about him so much. His scenes of rage are genuinely frightening, but Harry’s love for his son always comes across and it’s easy to see how he has become what he is.
There are many examples out there of rambling family sagas of this sort which charm with an easy grace but often leave one unfulfilled. Wah-Wah is something different. Beautifully paced, it effectively conveys the passing of time without ever breaking down into episodic sketches. Though it deals with quite a weight of human misery, it is entertaining throughout and often quite uproariously funny. As such, it will appeal even to those viewers who wouldn’t normally touch this sort of thing. It is, quite simply, a delight from beginning to end, and it comes highly recommended.
The most powerful moments in “Wah-Wah” – a phrase Ruby coins to parody the snooty baby-talk patter of the colonials – are Harry’s rampages. (At one point he holds a gun on his boy and can’t remember a thing the next day.) Byrne, having played on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” knows this territory well. I wish that Hoult were more expressive, though. In the scenes between father and son, it is almost always the father that the audience is drawn to look at.
FilmCritic.com [this website no longer exists]
The usually dour Byrne has a surprisingly light touch here, playing a generally decent man who turns monstrous with drink but returns quickly to his winking, jolly self in the morning. Watson is nothing short of fantastic, wearing her big, broad American accent like a bullhorn, scattering all before her. Together they make for a smart and likeable couple, the kind of parents one can actually see a child suffering through some truly horrendous domestic scenes in order to stay with.
Stepmother and son will further bond in mutual protection against Harry’s off-character boozy rages. The movie’s power, which smacks you in the gut, derives from this take on emotional violence as only half of the aggressor’s truth and not to be confused with the loving soul allowed out by day when the demon possessor sleeps. Why on earth, you might wonder, wouldn’t Ruby immediately bolt?-until Byrne reminds us in a career-crowing performance that Harry’s as charming and decent in his sobriety as he is wrenching and ruinous on a bender.
That said, the unfussy, accessible approach suits an old-fashioned yarn that flips between claustrophobic interior scenes and some mildly biting ensemble portrayals of snobbish colonial life. It’s all a bit Ayckbourn-meets-‘Eastenders’ on the veld, but Gabriel Byrne gives a great performance as Ralph’s troubled father, Harry, and Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson are enjoyable as Harry’s wife and American lover.
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.
When, in the late 90s a producer asked him to write a screenplay for his own film, he felt he was already halfway there. Wah-Wah was in his head. All he had to do was write it down, which he did, in two and a half months flat. Then the fun started. His producer withdrew to take up social work in the West Indies and Richard E was left holding the script. From 1999 to 2004, he flogged what he refused to believe was a dead horse. Every producer, every finance company he went to, said no. “It’s a chicken and egg situation,” he said, “you’ve got to get name actors in order to get the finance, and in order to get the name actors you’ve got to bullshit that you’ve got the finance, while all the time you feel the whole thing could just unravel, the wheels come off the pram, everything conspires to make you sink into a pit of self-pity and despair.” The idea of help from friendly thesps was fairly abhorrent to him. “When an actor asks you to read his script, your heart sinks. The number of scripts I’ve been given by actors that are so unbelievably terrible! It’s well known that actors are lousy writers.”
Still, he gritted his teeth and showed his dream script to Gabriel Byrne. And he liked it. So Richard E had found his father. And so it went on, one step forward, two steps back. Permission to film in his country granted by the King of Swaziland, more rewrites and castings and suddenly it’s June 7 2004 and he has £4m, a star cast (Gabriel Byrne, Julie Walters, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Celia Imrie) and seven weeks to make his movie.
premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival, 2005
Gabriel Byrne: I told Richard I would be true to his father’s life as it was on the page. I knew this was something incredibly important to him and I really wanted to go on that journey with him.
Read the entire Esquire 2006 interview in the Print Archive.
From “The Wah-Wah Diaries,” by Richard E. Grant
Excerpts from Richard E. Grant’s personal account of the making of his autobiographical film.
2 June 2003…
…No chance the film can go this year. Marie-Castille suggests Gabriel Byrne to play Harry. Genius idea and I kick myself for not thinking of him before. Send him the script.
13 June 2003…
…Message from Gabriel Byrne’s agent Teri Hayden in Dublin asking for dates and whether the film is fully financed, and most thrillingly saying that Gabriel really likes the script. I could almost get superstitious on this Friday the 13th hearing this sliver of hope.
23 June 2003…
…Waaaaaah-Waaaaaah!! Gabriel Byrne WANTS to do the film. I levitated and swivelled and felt as if my head might actually do a Linda Blair 360-degree Exorcist-style turn. Yippity-doo-dah and Yi-haaaaaa ululate from my throat and very hot tears spurt down my face. The relief, the relief, the RELIEF. After SO long. Even if he has a caveat to accommodate some script changes and adjustments, right now I am ready to rewrite the Magna Carta for him.
Meet the man himself at the Charlotte Street Hotel in Soho for lunch, and his charm is all-pervasive from the moment we meet, in his way of speaking to the waitress and anyone else who comes his way. His passion for the script and identification are at such a profound level that I am frankly astonished. He speaks non-stop and with such poetic eloquence that a great deal of time passes very swiftly. Philosophical. Curious. Sympathetic. Handsome and soulful. Sounds like a dating-agency shortlist, but he is all of these things. He watches the short location film that I made and is all the more enthralled and committed to the film. We talk about casting, his script readjustments and some worries about the character not being sympathetic enough, but EVERYTHING about Gabriel, like my father, is innately charming, loveable and sympathetic. I take on board his concerns and promise to take another pass at the script trying to incorporate his suggestions.
To actually be talking about the script in this kind of depth, rather than expending so much time and energy trying to get the script to agents and READ by their clients, is a bloody marvel and reminds me that THIS is the reason and motor for it all. Having felt like the poor sod that never got a date, left isolated on the ever-widening shelf of oblivion, I feel like I’ve ended up with the prom queen, head girl, Miss World, number one “totty” of them all today.
I’m prompted to write a “Dear Gabriel” email:
I could not be a happier man today if I tried. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!
Any worries I have about him not sounding English enough are put on the back burner. I run around Richmond Park like Roadrunner, trying to believe we are now in with a chance to get going! ALL the agonies of the past two years dissolve momentarily away.
6 October 2003…
…Marie-Castille calls to say that Gabriel Byrne’s agent says the money she offered was the lowest he’d ever got and could not do it for that.
19 November 2003…
…Heart-stopper announcement in the trade press that Gabriel Byrne is set to star in an Australian film in April! I email and phone his agent. Of course he too has to keep all options open as we are not fully financed–but neither is the Australian film, I find out, so there is partial relief, although the argy-bargy between his agent and Marie-Castille about money does not help.
26 November 2003…
…Emily Watson withdraws for personal reasons that I am unable to tell anyone about, but which are unarguable. Really gutted. So near, so far. Will Gabriel withdraw and take another offer in hand over my bird in the bush? Three days ago I had the lead roles cast and have now lost two of them!!
9 December 2003…
…Finance on his Australian film gets delayed and, miracle of miracles, a deal is struck and Gabriel is signed to do Wah-Wah.
The soundtrack for the film was composed by the wonderful Patrick Doyle, whose other film work includes Sense and Sensibility, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Gosford Park, Henry V, Thor, and Brave. He also created an incredible score for a film no one ever remembers: Dead Again, with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.
The teacher in the school scene actually taught history to Richard E. Grant at school in the very classroom where the scene takes place.
Colonialism and colonial decay is not a new subject in film. When we see it through Ralph’s adolescent eyes — how he tries to understand the changes to his world — we instinctively empathize with him.
Beyond Ralph’s growing pains, the audience experiences the interplay of anguish among the supporting characters as they attempt to hang on to the life they knew. Seeing the family — and the society — unravel from Ralph’s perspective is what makes this colonial period/coming of age piece both interesting and empathetic.
The most poignant example of this is the complex dynamic of his parents’ love as it unravels. Furthermore, throughout the film, we understand the tendency to want to hang on to old love and old ways. This tendency threatens Harry’s marriage to Ruby, as well as his professional reputation. Thus, the film contains an important moral about letting go and moving on. However, the film’s epiphanies, just as real in life, do not become clear almost until the bitter end.
Many thanks to all who posted images in the Forum and most especially thank you to Lozzie for her wonderful screencaps!