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There are worse things than catching your parents doing the dirty, like watching a film reduce an African nation’s black populace to window dressing. Richard E. Grant’s directorial debut is a semi-autobiographical account of a pretty boy’s growing pains in Swaziland during the tail-end of the British Empire’s rule, but you’ll need the film’s press notes to tell you that much given how vaguely the story considers its historical moment. Worse films than this have more ably monitored racial strife. Here, blacks don’t exist unless they share a frame with their oppressors, and when they do—as in a scene of half-naked natives chanting and marching down a city street—it’s to enshrine a withering colonial lifestyle. In the end, the Africans function less as people than they do as picture frames. When Ralph’s (Nicholas Hoult) mother, Lauren (Miranda Richardson), abandons the family for another man, his father, Harry (Gabriel Byrne), turns to liquor and marries an American, Ruby (Emily Watson), who can’t stand the “wah-wah” slang of the local bourgies. Ralph sorts through the rubble of his parents’ marriage by building an angry familial tableaux out of a shoebox, but in spite of his flair for the dramatic (he’s plagued with a crazy facial tic that, in the film’s best scene, Ruby helps to ease by tapping into its psychological foundation), he’s no poofter. Lauren and Ruby leave and enter the boy’s life as if by revolving door, Harry develops a tumor, and Ralph and the film’s stock company of foreign intruders put on a production of Camelot, the Lerner and Loewe musical about the legendary King Arthur’s lily-white stronghold. A smart Grant seems to understand Britain’s place in Swaziland history but chooses not to enrich his story by representing the conflict between the country’s white and black races. Remove the film’s blanket exoticism and it would be just another mundane, reasonably well-acted story of a kid coping with divorce.

DVD | Soundtrack
Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films
97 min
Richard E. Grant
Richard E. Grant
Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Nicholas Hoult, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Celia Imrie, Julian Wadham, Fenella Woolgar, Sid Mitchell, Zachary Fox

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