David Mamet, famous for his in-your-face characters, brutal and frequently raunchy dialogue and deliberate, staccato prose, would seem an unlikely choice to write and direct a screen adaptation of British playwright Terence Rattigan's genteel drama about injustice. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for Glengarry Glen Ross), whose body of work is actually far more varied than generally realized, does a commendable job with The Winslow Boy, bringing delicate emotion and unexpected humor to the story and eliciting superb performances from an unusually fine cast.
Set in 1910 Britain, and based on a real-life case of the day, the story concerns 13-year-old naval cadet Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards), who is expelled from school after being found guilty of stealing a five-shilling postal order from a classmate. Convinced of his son's innocence, Arthur Winslow (the brilliant Nigel Hawthorne) dedicates himself to clearing Ronnie's name, despite the financial and psychological burdens it places on the family. When the country's leading lawyer, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam, giving an unexpectedly nuanced and utterly convincing performance), agrees to take the case, Arthur must use his daughter's dowry money and his elder son's Oxford tuition to pay the bills.
The daughter, Catherine (Mamet's wife and frequent artistic collaborator, Rebecca Pidgeon), gracefully accepts her changed circumstances, equally determined to see her brother cleared. An ardent suffragette, she initially clashes with Morton, whose conservative views offend her, but she sees that he is Ronnie's only hope. It is Grace, the children's mother (played by the wonderful British actress Gemma Jones), who suffers the most, watching wistfully as her once-tranquil middle-class life is sacrificed.
The real case aroused strong emotion across the country, much of it in favor of the boy, and provoked a media frenzy that will be all too familiar to contemporary audiences. It proved a landmark case since, up until that time, no one had been able to sue any department (such as the British Admiralty) or institution (such as the naval college in question) that was considered part of the King's domain. The British Crown was deemed incapable of wrongdoing and was therefore immune from legal action. In order to file suit against the Admiralty, Morton (patterned after the real-life barrister in the case, Edward Carson) would have to obtain the signature of King Edward VII on a document called a Petition of Right.
Best known for his spare but savage plays about amoral people (American Buffalo, Speed the Plow) and such elaborate con-game films as The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games), Mamet brings gentleness and what -- for him, at least -- could almost pass for warmth to The Winslow Boy. He finds low-key but credible humor in characters and situations while infusing the overall film with a courtly, empathetic tone.
Hawthorne (The Madness of King George, Amistad) and Jones (Sense and Sensibility, TV's The Duchess of Duke Street) are always superb; the surprise here is Northam (Emma, The Net), whose inflection and manner are perfect and who somehow makes Morton both aloof and likable.
It would be too strong to say that Pidgeon (The Spanish Prisoner, the stage version of Oleanna) constitutes the weak link in the movie, but her cadence and manner of speaking retain too discernible a touch of Mametspeak, the staccato rhythm associated with many of her husband's works. Although portraying a committed feminist and a highly intelligent individual, her character feels a trifle too modern.
Composer Alaric Jans contributes a lovely score for the film's opening and closing segments. The one weak technical credit is the audio, which is noticeably poor in sections; voices fade in and out as if not miked properly. Overall, however, this engaging film proves a total pleasure, suitable for moviegoers who like their films a bit old-fashioned but still mainstream.
The Winslow Boy.
Directed by David Mamet. With Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon and Gemma Jones.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.