If there is one underrated character actor in the world it is Richard E. Grant. Since his breakthrough role in Withnail and I, the actor has appeared in over 50 films and therefore has one of those faces that has audiences asking, "Where have I seen him before?" With a rubbery face and a remarkable skill with dialects, he seems comfortable with broad and dry comedy, serious drama and crazed villainy, all of which he's exhibited in films ranging from Spice World to The Age of Innocence. He has played the lead in quite a few movies, and carried them very well -- I especially like him in the little-seen A Merry War -- but he is most easily recognizable for supporting parts in which he tends to stand out. He was the one enjoyable part of Hudson Hawk (not that it was hard) and was a piece of the brilliant ensemble in Gosford Park.
After watching his directorial debut, Wah-Wah, I'd like Grant to stay in front of the camera. The film, which he also wrote, is not a wasted effort, but there is nothing about it that is evidence he should be making movies rather than stealing scenes in them. The only significance it holds is that it is based somewhat on his own coming of age in the South African country of Swaziland during its transition to independence from Great Britain. But that is only of significance to Grant, and not to viewers, who, if they are anything like me, could do just fine, thank you, without another cinematic memoir of alcoholic fathers and distant mothers and incoherent scenes that add up to a whole without a center.
Wah-Wah opens in 1969 with Grant's young alter-ego, Ralph Compton (Zachary Fox), witnessing his mother (Miranda Richardson) committing adultery. He is in the back seat of a car, assumed to be asleep, while she and her partner go at it in the front, totally aware of the child's presence and not having a care. It is a more damaging slap in the face than any literal one could be to a kid, and it begins Ralph's story with a preposterous yet startlingly engaging bang.
Soon Ralph's parents are divorced, with Mom running off and Dad (Gabriel Byrne) left a single parent, but despite his mother's insulting departure, Ralph still has trouble letting her go. He keeps a souvenir, a glass she drank from and left her lipstick and scent on. It helps in his clinging that his father comes away from the split devastated and humiliated, turning to alcohol instead of a relationship with his son. Ralph is sent to boarding school, where his ridiculed for his family situation, and when he returns two years later (now played by Nicholas Hoult), Dad is remarried to a spirited American named Ruby (Emily Watson).
Throughout the film I wanted to find some kind of metaphoric meaning in the roles of the two moms. With a subplot going on about Princess Margaret's visit to Swaziland to officially grant the nation its sovereignty, I thought about the Queen Mother, Mother Africa and even the very word motherland, but there just wasn't any logical relevancy there. Perhaps if the new wife was African, there would have been some allegory, but that would have been too obvious anyway. Without some deeper substance, though, the film has little focus. It just plods through disconnected ideas and events that Grant may or may not have lived through, including a town production of Camelot, an armed attack by his father, and a token bit of young love that is barely addressed. I did discover that one thing in the film, which I won't spoil, did not occur until much later in Grant's life. So at least we know he wasn't restricting himself to a true story as his excuse to be so pointless.
There is some semblance of a theme of manners and society language, as the film's title refers to Ruby's likening of the local upper-class slang ("hoity-toity"; "hobbly-jobbly"; "toodle-pip") to baby talk. The aristocratic etiquette is a running joke in the film and though the snubbing of Ralph's mother as a divorcée and the out-casting of Ruby as a commoner are treated with slight seriousness, the prejudice towards a Swazi who joins the musical production is presented lightly with humor. Considering the film's title, this theme should have more weight or else more connection to the rest of the story, but it doesn't.
Grant's narrative is saved somewhat by the impressive cast that he's assembled -- though I hate to say I've never seen Watson so imperfect -- who carve their way through their unshaped characters with sufficient sharpness. Even better than Byrne, Richardson and Hoult, though, is the film's flawless bunch of supporting actors. Julie Walters is absolutely amazing as the woman whose husband leaves with Ralph's mother. Her loud and lively character is everything I desire and expect from the actress, and she makes up for completely bungling her similar role in Driving Lessons, which just screened at Tribeca. Also enjoyable as a snooty Governor's wife is Celia Imrie, who I've only just recently begun to notice (she was colorfully delightful in Nanny McPhee).
Coming from a fellow actor, though, Grant's direction of his actors is considerably disappointing. The cast's delivery of dialogue is so hasty, often coming too closely on the heels of that which is said immediately prior, that a lot of the time everyone comes off as doing rapid script-readings. Hopefully with Wah-Wah Grant has fulfilled his need to make a film and to therapeutically express his adolescence so that he won't wish to spend another length of time away from his acting career. There are plenty of great films to be made, only by somebody else, and if we're lucky, featuring Grant on screen.