For Queen and Swaziland

  • by David Lamble
  • Monday May 22, 2006
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"Stay where you are, you fucking fairy."

I must confess right off that unlike young Ralph in the new film Wah Wah, my drunken British father never questioned my manhood while chasing me around the family pool with a loaded revolver. Alas! The gun-toting pool chase is set off when Ralph (Zachary Fox), in a fit of desperation, pours his soused dad's fine whiskey down the sink. "Gee, I wish I'd thought of that," I say to myself, while admiring the pluck of writer/director Richard E. Grant's alter ego in a film that draws on his memories growing up as the son of a minor British potentate in the final days of the Queen's rule over Swaziland.

Swaziland? My almanac says this is a landlocked Southeast African kingdom slightly smaller than New Jersey, whose inhabitants had the misfortune of possessing gold mines that the British could hoodwink them out of. As Wah Wah opens in the late 1960s, the bloom was off that rose, and the British Foreign Office was scrambling to find a face-saving way of handing the Swazi people back to their king.

Wah Wah commences with 11-year-old Ralph sprawled across the back seat of the family Mercedes (German cars are a perk of privilege in this film, and the Compton family fortunes ascend from doughty sedan to flighty convertible), observing his mom (Miranda Richardson) giving it up to his dad's best friend. Mom's subsequent defection, combined with the prospect of losing his post as Education Commissioner, starts Dad (Gabriel Byrne) hitting the sauce, and has Ralph packed off to boarding school, from which he returns three years later sporting the body and much cooler eyebrows of About a Boy 's Nicholas Hoult.

Ralph is shocked to discover that Dad, without telling the boy, has acquired a rather colorful American second wife, Ruby (Emily Watson), whom he refers to loudly as a former flight attendant. Watson, who truly steals the film along with Hoult, is soon making a reputation for herself as the rude American who commits the cardinal sin of speaking before she is spoken to. It's Ruby who accuses the gin- and wife-swapping white gentry of condescending to her and the Swazi servants. "Why do you all speak this snotty baby talk? It's all just wah wah to me."

Watson has shined in many an indie without ever quite receiving her fair due, from the wannabe detective who's better at murdering the English language than solving homicides in Trixie, to the dangerously sheltered wife of an Outback lawman in the dark Australian Western The Proposition. Watson shifts from deceptively demur to hellcat without losing a beat or upstaging the rest of the film. Here she manages to love a drowning man, and become a second mom to an emotionally orphaned boy, in a film that nicely mixes social satire with an unsettling coming-of-age story.

Future passion

Nicholas Hoult stole many a heart as the cheeky 12-year-old insinuating his way into the life of Hugh Grant's irresponsible bounder of a bachelor in Paul Weitz's About a Boy. Here Hoult, shorn of baby fat, neatly shifts between adult baby-sitter and brash kid who can sweet-talk a matronly box office lady into passing him into the X-rated A Clockwork Orange. Glaring up at Malcolm McDowell's bullyboy hero and later sporting the single, rebellious false eyelash, Hoult signals a set of passions that should one day deliver on the promise made by those scene-stealing eyebrows.

Is Wah Wah any more than British boy-actor training wheels? Some critics have cited the neglect of its Swazi characters. In fairness, filmmaker Grant focuses on what were probably his own most painful memories: In the shadows of a dying empire, a desperate man clings to a life raft of colonial privilege. In the 1950s, my own heavy-drinking British dad looked to a big short-wave radio to convey soccer scores and other British cultural kitsch as hard to fathom as our habitual orange marmalade on toast. 

Max Minghella, the young British actor whose own lovely eyebrows are a hit in Art School Confidential, explained to Interview magazine why the loss of empire strikes fear into the hearts of even his own brash, American accent-imitating generation. "I grew up in England, and — we're still pissed off about losing our colonies, so we're worried that anything we like is going to get taken away from us."