The Winslow Boy
Screenplay : David Mamet (based on the play by Terence Rattigan)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Colin Stinton (Desmond Curry), Aden Gillett (John Watherstone), Sarah Flind (Violet)
David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and filmmaker who has created an indelible name for himself writing hard-hitting modern American dramas and complex mysteries involving con games, seems like the least likely candidate in the world to adapt "The Winslow Boy," Terence Rattigan's 1946 play about a proud British family that uses its entire family fortune to defend one of their own against charges of thievery.
But, look again. The majority of Mamet's work on stage and screen has dealt with some notion of honor, whether that be honor among thieves, honor among insurance salesman, or the feelings of a young woman who feels that her patriarchal college professor has dishonored her. "The Winslow Boy," which marks the first time Mamet has adapted someone else's work, is, in the end, about nothing so much as honor and the price one is willing to pay for it. In this case, it is a family's honor, and the story shows how the Winslows are willing to sacrifice almost everything in order to regain it. Mamet sets the film up like it will be a courtroom drama, and then bypasses the courtroom and focuses entirely on the individual family members and what they have to give up.
The film, which has basis in actual events, takes place in South Kensington, London, in 1910. It introduces us to the proud and successful Winslow family, headed by the noble and content father, Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne), a retired bank manager. His wife, Grace (Gemma Jones), is a dedicated mother. His daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), is a politically minded young women who is recently engaged to a career military officer. The oldest son, Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon), is enrolled at Oxford.
However, trouble arrives at the Winslow home in the form of the youngest son, 13-year-old Ronnie (Guy Edwards). Standing fearfully in the rain outside the house, he holds a letter from the Royal Naval College at Osbourne informing his father that he has been expelled after being found guilty of stealing a five-shilling postal order from another cadet. When Arthur finds out, he demands that his son tell him the truth. "Did you steal it?" he asks several times, and each time Ronnie replies, "No, father, I did not."
In our cynical age, a 13-year-old who denies guilt after being found guilty of theft by a prestigious military academy is a dubious character at best. But, in "The Winslow Boy," Ronnie's innocence is never questioned (at least, not directly). His family believes in him with unwavering faith, and they prove their dedication by forcing the case to go to court in order to prove that Ronnie is telling the truth. This results in something of an early-20th-century media circus, with newspaper headlines, songs, buttons, and battles in Parliament.
To try the case, the Winslows hire the best barrister in town, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam). Sir Robert immediately clashes with the idealistic Catherine, who detests his views toward women's suffrage. Nevertheless, he is the best lawyer around, and he takes the case much to their surprise. It is a risky enterprise because it requires taking the military and the Crown to court, which could ruin almost everyone involved, including Sir Robert himself.
What is most interesting about "The Winslow Boy" is that it is so much and not at all a David Mamet film. Many of the themes are consistent with his previous work, as is the sharp dialogue, but the direction the film takes flies in the face of what one would expect from a Mamet production. The film constantly seems to be headed toward a dramatic courtroom showdown where Mamet could put on display his flair for writing confrontational scenes and searing dialogue, and an early scene of Sir Robert interrogating Ronnie seems to support that notion.
However, Mamet never goes for the easy pay-off. It's not the courtroom he's interested in; he's not even really interested in whether or not Ronnie is guilty. What he is interested in is how Ronnie's case affects the Winslow family, and how their steely dedication to the boy seems almost charmingly antiquated in today's society. He shows how the case wears heavily on Arthur's failing health, how it causes the end of Catherine's engagement, and forces Dickie to leave Oxford because the family can no longer pay his tuition. At the same time, he develops a plausible and subtly erotic romance between Catherine and Sir Robert that justifies the famous final line of dialogue, where Sir Robert informs Catherine that she knows little about men.
In the end, "The Winslow Boy" is an uplifting ode to family strength, a much needed statement in an era when "family values" have been so politicized that they have lost all practical meaning. Mamet elicits fine performances from all his actors, including Jeremy Northam as the calculating and confident Sir Robert, and from Rebecca Pidgeon, who is sometimes a bit stiff, but not so much to warrant the extreme criticism she has received in some circles because her real-life role as Mamet's wife is often seen as cinematic nepotism.
However, the stand-out performance comes from the always reliable Nigel Hawthorne ("The Madness of King George"), who makes Arthur into both a noble and tragic character. Hawthorne's performance is smooth and subtle, and it's shocking the way he has aged by the end of the film, not so much in his physical appearance (although it is evident), but in the way he moves and speaks. He may have lost his health and his money, but he still has his honor, which is the one thing he sought to preserve.
©1999 James Kendrick