Actor Richard E. Grant often felt that the public would never see him as anything other than Withnail from the 1987 arthouse hit Withnail And I -“ even after appearing 60 films.
That was until he wrote and directed Wah-Wah, an autobiographical film based upon his childhood in the former British colony of Swaziland.
And, what a film! Wah-Wah is an engaging nostalgic and frequently sad coming-of-age story about a boy who watches his family fall in the dying light of the British Empire’s final years in Africa.
Wah-Wah is also partly a comedy of manners seen through the eyes of a child about a world sprinkled with vintage 1960s Mercedes and formal garden parties where porcupines (sculpted from watermelons) and non-stop G&Ts are served.
The script is laced with often hilarious jokes about those adult foibles that come with boredom and isolation -“ adultery and drinking.
Yet underlying this bad behaviour is the sense that their cosy life as they know it is ending. The Brits are planning to grant Swaziland -“ their last African colony -“ independence.
While Swaziland’s move to independence was a benign transition, Grant’s portrayal of his homeland sticks to a child’s idealistic idea of the dark continent: well-loved Swazi servants race smiling to the family car when it arrives home while the real Africa is only glimpsed from the car window.
Grant was born in Swaziland and did witness his mother’s adultery when he was just nine -“ which is where we meet his alter-ego Ralph (played by two fine young actors Zachary Fox and About A Boy‘s Nicholas Hoult).
He pretends to sleep in the back of a pokey 1960s sedan while his mother Lauren (Miranda Richardson) shags her friend Gwen’s (Julie Walters) husband.
Emily Watson plays Ruby, with Brooklyn accent in place, and is the heart of the film’s second half. Warm, inviting and forthright, she is bound to cause problems in the small ex-pat community once she lands in their midst and disrupts their tootle pip peace by seeing them for what they are: a tribe of snobs in the backwaters of the empire babbling what Ruby calls a lot of wah-wah.
Grant rarely falters with his material and he has a truly fine ensemble cast. In particular, Gabriel Byrne is superb as the failed husband with crippling alcoholism and Emily Watson is a surprise as the outspoken American bride. Nicholas Hoult, as the teenaged Ralph, is maturing into a fine young actor.
Wah-Wah opens 22 June with previews this weekend.