Judge Joel Pearce watched the dramedy Wah-Wah and thought is was just "dra."
Every family has its own language.
Alternately disturbing, frustrating, and alienating, Wah-Wah is a strange personal portrait of a country in transition and a family who desperately needs to change as. Unfortunately, we've all been through this material before, and this is not the best version of the story. When some mismarketing is added to these problems, I can't recommend the film as much as I had hoped.
Facts of the Case
Wah-Wah is Richard E. Grant's largely autobiographical portrait of 1960s Swaziland, Britain's last colonial holdout. This is the time that England will give back the country to its rightful owners, which will completely change the lives of the colonials who live in their small, upper crust enclave. This film is the story of one of these families, a trio so completely dysfunctional that their African servants must have wondered how Britain managed to conquer anyone in the first place.
The father, Harry (Gabriel Byrne, Dead Man), is the minister of education, whose term seems to be coming to an abrupt end. That won't happen before his marriage falls apart, though, thanks to his icily vicious, adulterous wife Lauren (Miranda Richardson, Spider). She takes off one day, leading Harry to dipsomania and their 12-year-old son Ralph (Nicholas Hoult, About a Boy) abandoned and shipped off to boarding school.
When Ralph returns two years later he finds that his father has recently married Ruby (Emily Watson, Punch-Drunk Love), a liberated American. She doesn't fit into the British high society, but it may not matter for long if things keep falling apart in the family and their community.
I want to be careful not to be too hard on Wah-Wah. First of all, it contains excellent performances from some of Britain's best actors. Gabriel Byrne is eerily realistic as a man trapped by circumstance and his own bad habits. Emily Watson's Ruby is the kind of woman who can arrive somewhere and change the whole community with her charisma and rebellious nature. Nicholas Hoult has the potential to become a fine actor with considerable range. The film has some truly moving moments as well. It's painful to watch as Ralph tries to come to terms with why he has been abandoned so many times. I love the scene where he is empowered by the vision of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.
Unfortunately, Wah-Wah never realizes its potential. While Ralph's life would feel chaotic and bipolar, we need more consistency as an audience. We are tossed from happy to sad moments with no warning; characters are introduced and reintroduced; and there's no chance for us to settle into the story. I suspect the film might have been tinkered with a bit too much in the editing room and important moments and transitions unwisely excised.
A few of these omissions create serious problems. Ralph does fall in love over the course of the film, which should have been an important element of the story, especially given his family background. Will he be able to trust a girl to stay with him? Will he have anything even remotely resembling a stable relationship? We don't get to find out, since the love story is introduced, developed, and completed in about five scenes and six lines of dialogue. The political backdrop is also largely ignored, even though the film's emotional climax is placed at the ceremony where power is given back to the people of Swaziland. Is this supposed to be a minor event for the characters? If so, why are they so excited? By the end of the film, as another major twist is thrust on us in the last five minutes, we have too many questions, and no emotional resolution. My wife and I should have been wiping away tears as the credits rolled, but we ended up just shrugging our shoulders and questioning why on earth Sony would refer to this depressing film as a dramedy. We decided "dra" would have been more apt.
As usual, Sony has done a fine job with the technical quality of the disc. The video is presented in a breathtaking 2.35:1 anamorphic frame, showing off the beauty of the African landscape. I noticed no visual flaws of any kind, and the color and black levels were dead on. The sound was a bit less impressive, with no LFE channel to fill out the bottom end. The dialogue was often recorded too softly, which caused a few missed lines (though the accents deserve at least partial blame for that). There are no special features whatsoever, which is a bit surprising since Grant has released a book discussing the creation of Wah-Wah. I'm sure he would have enthusiastically accepted the opportunity to record a commentary or an interview. As such a personal project, his involvement in the DVD probably would add quite a bit of value.
In the end, I'm left wondering what Wah-Wah adds to an already impressive canon of films about colonial and post-colonial Africa. For those interested in coming-of-age stories in general, there are dozens of better titles. I can see the passion that went into the production of Wah-Wah, and I truly do wish that I could share that passion as an audience member. As things stand, however, I can only really recommend the film for serious drama fans, and even they will likely only want to rent it.
Grant is instructed to seek out more advice for his next directing project. He has passion and skill, but needs to keep working on his storytelling. Everyone else is free to go.
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