'Wah-Wah" is the first film ever shot in Swaziland, a tiny kingdom encased within South Africa, and the yellows and ochres in the landscape are astonishingly beautiful. As is often true of movies set in Africa, the resplendence of the countryside clashes with the misery of the lives that we see.
In the case of writer-director Richard E. Grant's semiautobiographical debut feature, the misery is of the distinctly upper-crust variety. Set in 1969 during the waning days of the British Empire, Grant focuses the story on Ralph (played as an adolescent by Nicholas Hoult), whose father Harry (Gabriel Byrne) will soon lose his position as minister of education with the arrival of Swazi independence.
The comedown, coupled with the desertion of his wife (Miranda Richardson) for another man, has aggravated his alcoholism. Sent off to boarding school, Ralph returns to find his dad remarried to Ruby (Emily Watson), an American "ex-air hostess" who cares little for the snooty proprieties of the outpost.
At first repelled by her carefree ways, Ralph soon regards her as a soulmate as they both are buffeted by Harry's increasingly violent drunken rages. "That monster isn't really him," she counsels the boy after one particularly terrifying outburst, and in a sense, she's right. During the day, away from the bottle, Harry is an affectionate father. It is during his nightly wallow that he goes over to the dark side.
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.
Grant is a fine actor ("Withnail and I," "Gosford Park") and, although he doesn't appear in "Wah-Wah," his spiritedness as a performer carries through to some of the others in his cast. Watson does her level best with her American accent and is always a welcoming presence on screen. To understand just how versatile an actress she can be, compare her oomph in this film with the courtly reticence of her character in the recently released "The Proposition."
As was also true of Andy Garcia, who recently directed a highly personal debut feature, "The Lost City," about his childhood country of origin (Cuba), Grant's reach here exceeds his grasp. His ambitions to make a movie about the loss of innocence and the passing of empire are unrealized, but there are some fine grace notes and a few resounding minor chords to be heard along the way. Grade: B
• Rated R for some language and brief sexuality.