As the British rule is coming to an end in
Wah-Wah is Richard E. Grant’s semi-autobiographical story of coming of age in
Ralph’s family is part of the British colonial community. In the midst of this African nation, they carry on the Imperial British way of life as best they can. They play cricket. They follow the protocols of British society (such as you don’t address a titled woman unless she speaks to you first.) They are their own little society. But the stresses of this life are also real. Much of the stress is dealt with through alcoholism and adultery. Everyone knows it’s going on, but no one will face the problems.
For Ralph the problems begins to reach a head when he is eleven and his mother leaves to live with his father’s best friend. Ralph feels abandoned, first by his mother, then soon his father emotionally abandons him as his father falls into alcoholism. Eventually Ralph is sent off to boarding school.
When he returns home at age 14, he discovers that his father has remarried. His stepmother, Ruby, is an American who is very much an outsider in the British society. She complains that they all talk a kind of baby talk (e.g., “toodle pip” for good-bye) that she calls Wah-Wah. At first, Ralph wants nothing to do with Ruby. But when he discovers that she is as much an outsider as he feels, and as they share a common threat from his father’s drinking, they soon form a bond.
At this point, many others are feeling abandoned. Her father and the other in the British society are being abandoned by the Empire – all their jobs and standing will vanish when independence comes. His mother is being abandoned by her lover, who will be sent to
Through all of this, Ralph is searching for his identity and some semblance of control over his life – as do all adolescents. In Ralph’s case his loss of identity and control seems a bit more pronounced. He is afflicted with an involuntary tic that contorts his face in times of stress. That tic shows the pain that is a part of Ralph’s life.
Ralph begins to find himself in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. He begins mimicking Alex’s makeup from the film. He begins a mild rebellion over his father’s drinking. He also has a way of having some control – puppets. As a child he began acting out his frustrations with small puppets. As he got older he began collecting puppets and thinking of putting on shows.
In time Ralph manages to get his father to confront his alcoholism and as the new nation comes into being, it seems that Ralph is on the verge of finding a new life in his own family. The film ends, after tragedy, with a whole new realm of possibilities for Ralph. The viewer is left to wonder what roads he will take from here on, but those are the roads of other stories.
Grant has assembled an excellent cast for his first film as writer and director. However, there is a cartoonish nature to some of the characters. This can probably be excused as the way memory works and the way exaggeration can be used in film as a foil for the more serious reality being portrayed. The look at the British society at the time seems a bit anachronistic, but the
All of this exaggeration and buffoonery seem appropriate as ways an adolescent would view the world. In that, Grant has tapped into a universal experience that goes beyond his own story. It is in that extension from his story to our story that we are able to consider the ways we too continue to avoid dealing with the problems of our lives and our families because they just wouldn’t fit with the façade of society.