There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Africa’s colonial period may be over, but the Western tradition of making pretentious, Anglocentric, overlong movies about the continent lives on. To Out of Africa, Cry Freedom, and, yes, The Constant Gardener, add Wah-Wah, brilliant character actor Richard E. Grant’s directorial debut. The film initially promises to keep off the well-trodden trail: Grant, after all, is the son of Swaziland’s last British education minister, directing a self-written movie about the son of Swaziland’s last British education minister. Wah-Wah also happens to star About a Boy’s Nicholas Hoult and Gabriel Byrne, who has a few more years of experience playing brooding Brits than Ralph Fiennes. With the home-field advantage and an accomplished starting lineup, why’d Grant settle for such a TV-weepie score? In the late ’60s, on the eve of Swaziland’s independence, an act of infidelity drives Harry Compton, Byrne’s hard-drinking minister, and his wife (Miranda Richardson) to the unspeakable: divorce. The oboes whine. When son Ralph (Hoult) returns from a long hitch at boarding school to find his father remarried to sassy American Ruby (Emily Watson), he pouts aggressively. The oboes whine again. By the time we get to the Wah-Wah’s semblance of closure—hint: It involves Ralph’s embracing Ruby and rejecting his unfaithful mother—the music has turned several shades of portentous, and the story has followed the Brits through their mounting of an indefatigably square theatrical production of Camelot. Whether that’s a cringe-inducing metaphor for a white man’s utopia about to be surrendered to the natives or a sly indictment of colonialist attitudes is sometimes hard to discern. Grant, it seems, would like to have it both ways: As Harry and Ralph drive through the countryside in a fancy car, the director’s camera refuses to focus on the faces of the impoverished blacks on the roadside—yet he also has Ruby teach the cook to read. Convincingly balancing black humor with melodrama—cue one of Harry’s alcoholic rages—is a tall order for any filmmaker, let alone one who’s spent most of his career in front of the camera. Watson’s honking American accent briefly enlivens Wah-Wah (Ruby gives the movie its title when poking fun of stuffy Anglospeak), but it’s no match for the poor choices made elsewhere. Grant’s film may come from real life, but it’s nowhere near as convincing as his best acting. —Justin Moyer