The Winslow Boy

Very English, very period and very polite, "The Winslow Boy" seemed a curious project for combustive U.S. playwright-scenarist-turned-film director David Mamet. But the resulting second screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1946 play emerges as an assured drama graced by some superbly cast performers -- albeit compromised by a single problematic one.

Very English, very period and very polite, “The Winslow Boy” seemed a curious project for combustive U.S. playwright-scenarist-turned-film director David Mamet. If the resulting second screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play (following Anthony Asquith’s ’48 version) doesn’t necessarily make his reasons for digging up this chestnut much clearer, it nonetheless emerges as an assured drama graced by some superbly cast performers — albeit compromised by a single problematic one. Prestige item will need strong critical support, since the material’s central point-of-honor issue may not be compelling to contempo arthouse auds. Nor does pic sport the romantic sweep or plush aesthetics auds have come to expect from such U.K.-set period pieces. Sony Classics release opens April 30 in New York and Los Angeles after the San Francisco Film Festival opening night world preem. Pic is also set for Cannes fest unspooling next month.

Based loosely on an actual Edwardian era case, story takes place in the years just before WWI. At outset, London household of retired bank manager Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) is abuzz: He’s about to entertain a permission-asking visit from daughter Catherine’s (Rebecca Pidgeon) beau, John (Aden Gillett), who has just proposed. Serene wife Grace (Gemma Jones), rather frivolous eldest son Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon) and Catherine are nervous, lest Father’s sometimes stern manner scare off the suitor.

Things go nicely, however, until a celebratory toast is interrupted by the discovery that younger son Ronnie (Guy Edwards) skulks nearby — though he’s not expected home from his military academy for several days yet. It emerges that the fearful 13-year-old has been expelled for allegedly stealing a classmate’s pocket money, a charge he denies.

Taking the boy’s word and infuriated by that dismissal without fair trial, Arthur presses for further inquiry, which Naval College authorities flatly refuse. In time, Ronnie is happily resettled at a civilian boarding school. Yet Father still insists on “justice” — eventually taking the case as far as the House of Lords, represented by famous, flamboyant attorney Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam).

Latter’s employ is costly beyond the comfortable but by no means rich Winslow clan’s means. As this seemingly trivial matter drags on — becoming a point of national debate — repercussions spiral for each family member. In particular, Arthur’s frail health grows endangered by worry, not least that the whole campaign might turn out little more than his own bullheaded mistake.Catherine is not amused by Sir Robert’s quips that her suffragette leanings rep a “lost cause,” while fearing that his reckless courtroom tactics might hand the Winslows a far more immediate one. Yet between the two barely civil allies there’s a frisson of reluctant attraction.

Though its “well-made play” qualities do leave a stagy imprint on the proceedings, Rattigan’s carefully orchestrated character dynamics and well-crafted Big Scenes still deliver in this clean adaptation. Smoothly paced, much of this is engrossing. At times the story creaks, however, and Mamet stays all too faithful to the story’s original limitations — it surely wasn’t wise to keep us from witnessing the climactic courtroom verdict.

More seriously, modern auds may have trouble accepting (as do naysayers in the drama itself) that a schoolboy’s sacking offers potent enough injustice on which to fly the key flag, “Let right be done” — especially when things like an imminent world war get pushed onto the parliamentary back burner as a result.

Mamet’s prior efforts as director have sometimes suffered from his preference (onstage as well as onscreen) for unvaried, machine-gun line readings — an affect that wouldn’t sit well on Rattigan’s more genteel prose. Those looking for trademark “Mamet-speak” here won’t find much more than a few instances of overlapping dialogue and flustered repeats.

Overall, helmer’s script doesn’t stray far from the source, beyond opening up its originally parlor-restricted action and trimming a necessarily talky piece as much as possible. Rattigan’s more melodramatic language, as well as some likewise dated comedy relief, have been toned down in both script and performance approach. (Not in the play, but notably retained from Asquith’s film, is a charming, superior coda.)

Indeed, where this “Winslow Boy” triumphs is in giving several superb actors an intelligent, unobtrusive setting in which they can fill out slightly musty material. Hawthorne is in terrific form here; he soft-pedals the father’s imperious side, creating a moving portrait of high-minded determination that knows all too well the suffering it may cause others. In a smaller role, Jones deftly etches both spousal deference and a mother’s pushed-too-far protective anger.

Northam at first strikingly recalls Robert Donat’s tight-lipped star turn as Sir Robert in the ’48 film, but new pic’s increased romantic undercurrent lets him exercise considerably more humor and vulnerability, to dashing effect. Edwards, Colin Stinton (as a family friend haplessly in love with Catherine) and Sarah Flind (the housemaid) also make vivid impressions.

In many ways Catherine provides the play’s moral and emotional center, and Mamet’s wife and frequent collaborator Pidgeon is pic’s major problem. Her accent’s credible enough, and she looks right as an ingenue who’s nobody’s fool. But, as in “The Spanish Prisoner” and “Oleanna,” her delivery is so staccato and void of emotional coloring that the character seems cold, supercilious. Even when faced with her fiance’s desertion, this Catherine appears invulnerable — a quality that saps several important scenes. Pidgeon comes off better when paired with Northam; his stylish hauteur makes her coolness seem more like a sly, mutual joke.

Production turns its modesty into a strength, eschewing the expansiveness of Merchant Ivory-type period dramas for credible detail in capturing the Winslows’ middle-class London milieu. Budget economics are evident only in the rather obvious shortcut means (newspaper clippings, etc.) taken to suggest how the “Winslow boy craze” has swept the nation, sans actual crowd scenes.

Tech package is well turned, from the handsome design elements to Alaric Jans’ traditional score. Benoit Delhomme’s lensing etches a cold-and-gray old England.

The Winslow Boy

  • Production: A Sony Picture Classics release. Produced by Sarah Green. Directed, written by David Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Benoit Delhomme; editor, Barbara Tulliver; music, Alaric Jans; production designer, Gemma Jackson; art director, Andrew Munro; set decorator, Trisha Edwards; costume designer, Consolata Boyle; sound, Clive Winter; assistant director, Richard Hewitt; casting, Ros and John Hubbard. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, April 6, 1999. (In San Francisco, Cannes film festivals.) Rated G. Running time: 104 MIN.
  • With: Arthur Winslow - Nigel Hawthorne Sir Robert Morton - Jeremy Northam Catherine Winslow - Rebecca Pidgeon Grace Winslow - Gemma Jones Ronnie Winslow - Guy Edwards Dickie Winslow - Matthew Pidgeon Desmond Curry - Colin Stinton John Watherstone - Aden Gillett Violet - Sarah Flind First Lord of the Admiralty - Neil North Miss Barnes - Sara Stewart Fred - Perry Fenwick Mr. Michaels - Alan Polanski