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Set at the end of the '60s, as Swaziland is about to receive independence from Great Britain, the film follows the young Ralph Compton, at 12, through his parents' traumatic separation, till he's 14. It is written and directed by Richard E Grant, and based on true events from Richard E Grant's childhood. Written by
Richard E Grant's "autobiopic" is an illustration of Tolstoy's adage that while happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Grant's childhood in Swaziland as the son of a top colonial administrator (in education) could have been idyllic, but the idyll was shattered by his mother's infidelity and eventual desertion of the family and his father's severe alcoholism. Yet Grant could not stop loving either of them, and in the movie he seems to be saying, "yes, it hurt at the time, but I understand and forgive." So despite the trauma, Grant gives us a fair account of his parents, lightly disguised as the Comptons, of their love for each other and their love for him.
The second striking feature of the movie is the portrait of a small but immensely snobbish colonial society that was about to disappear. Appearances are everything so clandestine adultery is condoned but divorce very much disapproved of. Outsiders (for example Harry Compton's new American wife Ruby) are scarcely tolerated. This stern moral code was hardly needed to impress the natives, who were polygamous. The choice of "Camelot" as the entertainment put on by the denizens of the white social club for the Independence celebrations is ironically appropriate for some of the whites it was indeed Camelot, and now it was about to end.
Another theme of Grant's is growing up, generally a painful experience with or without dysfunctional parents. Here he is greatly helped by a fine performance from Nicholas Hoult as the 14 year old Richard ("Ralph" in the film). Miranda Richardson as the errant mother and Gabriel Byrnes as the father are also excellent and there are strong performances from the supporting cast, particularly Julie Walters as a deserted wife and Celia Imrie as the impossibly snobbish High Commissioner's wife. I'm not sure why, but Emily Watson's Ruby was only so-so. The people of Swaziland don't get much of a look-in this is white mischief after all, but the actor who plays the warm-hearted local doctor (John Matshikiza?) should get an honorable mention.
Since independence Swaziland has not done too well; according to Wikipedia it now has 39% of the adult population with HIV and the world's lowest life expectancy -32.6 years. The combined rule of the present king and "Great She-Elephant" (his mother) has not been a conspicuous success. The colonial days, which took the light form of a British Protectorate, must seem like Camelot even to the Swazis. This movie seems to have captured the atmosphere of the time as well as the pains of growing up.
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