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WAH-WAH (article first published : 2006-08-13)

Richard E Grant has chosen a semi-autobiographical tale for his directing debut. It’s a tricky thing to do, because it demands the ability to stand back from personal concerns and translate them into entertainment –and it seems to me that in the standing back, he has gone a little too far. It is a film that could have benefited from wearing its heart a little more plainly on its sleeve.

There are actually two stories. The one, the personal autobiographical element, is a portrait of a family in free-fall, seen through the eyes of a child/adolescent. Grant had to endure the break up of his parents’ marriage and his father’s descent into alcoholism and here the character Ralph Compton goes through the same.

On the other hand, the film is also an ironic look at the end of a colonial era, showing an about-to-be-dispossessed society, drinking and sleeping around on its way to obliteration, awarding itself medals, clinging on to daft uniforms and desperately upholding social mores that no longer stood for much in the far away mother country.

For example, to the horror of the ex-pats who had staged their production of Camelot to celebrate her visit to preside over the independence ceremonies in Swaziland, Princess Margaret leaves half way through Camelot (admittedly a drunken Guinevere and one or two other am-dram peculiarities make her reaction unsurprising). But, despite this being the era of Clockwork Orange, everyone is horrified. This kind of thing is just not done.

To some extent the comedy of the Camelot production undercuts Ralph’s agony – the satire and the drama sit uneasily together - but there is a lot to like in this film as well – not least plenty of local actors holding their own. John Matshikiza is there as the local doctor; Ian Roberts as the cause of the Compton family disintegration; Michael Richard having fun as the choleric Camelot director driven to desperation by his cast, and Durban arts personality, actress and regular Witness reviewer Caroline Smart as an enthusiastic member of the Camelot chorus.

There are good performances from the major stars - Miranda Richardson, Julie Walters and Emily Watson - although I did wonder why Gabriel Byrne as Ralph ’s father made himself both look and sound like Prince Charles, almost to the point of caricature – it became positively distracting. All in all, Wah-Wah is an elegantly crafted film, enjoyable to watch, but that ends up doing too little through trying to do too much. – Margaret von Klemperer

”Wah-Wah” is currently showing at Cinema Nouveau at Gateway




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