The Winslow Boy (1999)
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.

       Before I saw David Mamet's stately and ultimately satisfying adaptation of
Terence Rattigan's stage play
The Winslow Boy, I was surprised by the choice.
That this writer-director who is known for the scatological content of his own
work would want to tackle such a war horse seemed almost incongruous. But
then I remembered Mamet's beautifully rendered Chekhov translations and that
the core of his work centers on morality and it all clicked. Rattigan's 1946 play
(which was filmed by Anthony Asquith in 1948 and released in 1950) revolves
around a teenage boy who is falsely accused of stealing and whose father risks
everything to prove his son's innocence. Coming as this film does on the heels
of the presidential sex scandal (which itself was foreshadowed in Mamet's script
Wag the Dog), this film is a bracing tonic. It is a well-acted version of a
well-made play that makes a point for upholding values. "Let Right Be Done!"
became the rallying cry of the Winslow family and Mamet has certainly done
right by the material.

      Set in 1910, Rattigan's work is based on an historical case involving
a boy who was accused of stealing a postal order at his school. By convention,
the stage play had one setting--the living room of the Winslow family and
much of the critical action took place off-stage. Undoubtedly Mamet will get
slammed for maintaining that. In fact, the only real deficiency of his version
is when he opens up the action. At those times,
The Winslow Boy seems
a bit underpopulated, especially a scene that is supposed to be taking place
in Parliament. Still, Rattigan meticulously crafted an ensemble piece with
several strong roles for actors and Mamet has cast his version well.

      As the patriarch of the Winslows, Nigel Hawthorne strikes just the right
notes of imperiousness and sternness, but also sketches in the man behind that
facade. Actors could easily just play the character as an obsessed man who
threatens his livelihood, ruins his children and himself all to prove a point of
honor. Hawthorne to his credit lets the audience see the man's fear as well. He
recognizes the price his desire for justice extracts on his family yet he is
impelled to move forward. Matching him is Gemma Jones as his wife, who tires
of the toll her husband but remains unflappable. As the older children, real-life
brother and sister Matthew and Rebecca Pidgeon are fine. The latter, who is Mrs.
Mamet, shows a marked improvement in screen technique over her stagy work in
The Spanish Prisoner. As the budding suffragette Catherine Winslow she is fine
and anchors an important relationship in the picture. Her character also loses
the most in that as her father insists on pursuing the court battle, she finds her
fiancé (Aiden Gillett) becoming more distant. Guy Edwards as the boy in
question also is fine.

      But, the real star to emerge is Jeremy Northam in the pivotal role of Sir
Robert Morton, a noted legal mind who agrees to accept the case. At first
appearing cold-hearted and ambitious, Northam's Morton emerges as a complex
figure and the tentative romantic dalliance that develops between him and the
brittle Rebecca Pidgeon is a marvel of understatement. Mamet handles these
scenes well and they crackle with suppressed desire.

      My only caveat is that I fear contemporary audiences used to the salacious
news reporting will not have a threshold of tolerance for such a wonderful piece.
Mamet has stated he originally intended to direct the play for the theater but
instead made this film version. We can all be grateful for that as it is an
entertaining and enlightening film performed by a dream cast. For anyone who
wants to see a film about real people facing real issues, I would heartily
The Winslow Boy.

Rating:                B+
Running time:      117 mins.