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Mamet argues for The Winslow Boy

By Peter Keough

MAY 10, 1999:  If anyone should take the blame for the stagnancy of American independent film -- besides the inevitable Quentin Tarantino -- it might as well be David Mamet. The incantatory, expletive-laced dialogue, the glib nihilism and low-life hauteur, the borderline misogyny, twisted machismo, and full-scale misanthropy -- these qualities, brutally revelatory in plays like American Buffalo and Glengarry, Glen Ross, decline into sour mannerism in the films of Mamet imitators like Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz.

Mamet, for his part, has had less luck in imitating himself, at least in movies. Dabbling in different genres, though still transfixed by his thematic and linguistic obsessions, his output has been distinctive but stilted. House of Games, his first film and one of the best, reflected the spirit of detached play that Mamet seems to share with that other theatrical wunderkind turned filmmaker, Orson Welles, who described movies as the world's greatest model-train set.

With The Winslow Boy, however, Mamet the filmmaker has grown up and found his place in movies by adapting a work that would seem to be the antithesis of his own. Terrence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy, brought to the screen once before, by Anthony Asquith in 1950, utters nary a four-letter word in its dry Edwardian dialogue. No ideals or loyalties are betrayed, no innocents debased or deceived. Instead, it's a tale of faith, decency, and personal integrity vindicated -- at Jobian cost, perhaps, but that seems an inevitable part of the reward. Starkly conventional and bracingly new, splendidly performed and subtly constructed, The Winslow Boy celebrates traditional virtues -- cinematic and moral.

In a tartly crafted opening scene, the various elements of the middle-class Winslow family gather in the drawing room of their London townhouse in the complacent but foreboding year 1912. Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne), the paterfamilias, after chastening his ne'er-do-well older son, Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon), for playing a gramophone and doing "the bunny hug," prepares to meet John (Aden Gillet), the beau of his daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), to hear of John's intentions.

After a perfunctory, funny negotiation, Madeira is brought in to celebrate the engagement, until it is indiscreetly revealed that Arthur's favorite son, 13-year-old Ronnie (Guy Edwards), has returned from the royal naval academy prematurely. The odd lad out at this festive occasion (the shot of him looking on from outside in the garden, hapless, uniformed, and drenched with rain, is one of Mamet's spare but potent uses of exteriors), he's brought a letter from his commandant: accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order, he's been expelled.

From such trifles, as the Clinton administration knows, comes the downfall of the high and mighty. After establishing the truth, so elusive these days, in a single, electrifying confrontation with his son ("Are you so afraid of me, boy?" Arthur asks, and given Hawthorne's genteel ferocity, his weary indefatigability, who wouldn't be), the outraged father begins his quixotic crusade. Through insolvency, infirmity, and public notoriety (Mamet's rendition of the turn-of-the century media through headlines, cartoons, and musical hall ballads is arch and apt), he fights to prove the boy's innocence.

The ordeal is Kafka by way of Capra. Rebuffed by an insidious Catch-22 (the naval academy is the proprty of the king, who by law can do no wrong and can't be sued), the elder Winslow hires the country's best barrister, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam). His idea is to petition the crown to waive its privilege, invoking the time-honored phrase "Let right be done."

For Sir Robert, though, right might well mean reactionary -- he's taken the Tory side in his litigations, much to the disgust of Catherine, who works for the suffragette cause though she does not shun opulent headwear. Indeed, as Mamet insinuates through gazes and glimpses, the appeal of the case for Sir Robert might be the starchy beauty of Winslow's daughter as much as the disputed innocence of his son. Underscoring this frisson are the performances. Northam, who injects the priggish dissipation of Robert Donat's performance in the Asquith version with a baleful ribaldry, and Pidgeon, whose flippancy falls, delightfully, just short of anachronism, bring a screwball spin to Rattigan's already loaded lines.

But this sexual subtext is only part of the unseen action in The Winslow Boy. Like Bresson, Mamet places the drama's key events off screen, a technique that intensifies their impact and broadens your awareness of a world beyond the impeccable, etiolated interiors, suffocating in their constriction, where nearly all the action takes place. When at last it comes time to venture outside the damasked walls, the doors open to a garden rapturous in its light, color, and beauty. And sexual potential -- responding to Catherine's comment that he knows nothing about women, Sir Robert retorts that she knows nothing about men. With the sublime indirection of The Winslow Boy, Mamet demonstrates how much he has learned about both.

Dogging the wag

"It's the oddest thing that ever happened to me," says David Mamet about the strange fate of Wag the Dog, the satire for which he co-wrote the script and which became a buzzword for the misadventures of the Clinton administration during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "Barry Levinson [the director] and I used to call each other up after the scandal occurred and kind of talk in whispers, in effect saying, 'Am I going insane, am I hallucinating, or is this actually happening?' I still get stuff from Jane Rosenberg, the producer of the film; she just sent me some stuff a couple days ago about the Serbs giving some awards to the filmmakers of Wag the Dog. It's bizarre. It's cognitive dissonance, something that happens to you that's so flipping bizarre that all of a sudden nothing makes sense."

And so for his recent film Mamet has retreated to a saner time, Edwardian England in 1912, and more strait-laced material, the perennial stage favorite The Winslow Boy, by Terrence Rattigan. Based on an actual event, it tells the story of an average man who is determined to see that right is done and is willing to sacrifice everything for it.

"It's about heroism," says Mamet. "I think we see a similar situation around us all the time. There's a story in today's paper about a woman who's a member of the New York street-crimes unit who's been speaking out for a long time against the violence in her department. She got disciplined and ostracized, but she found it more important to hold true to ideals than she did to win approval of her peers.

"It's the same thing with Susan McDougal. She stood up to a vast, out-of-control jurisprudential monster. She thought it was right, period. I think it's a great story of heroism. It's one you see not frequently, but regularly."

Nonetheless, it seems these days that the stories that become bestsellers are those about Monica Lewinsky, not Susan McDougal.

"I think that's one of the things Rattigan's saying in the play," Mamet points out. "That the reward is not that everything's restored. You've gone through trauma, and the reward is that you got to tell the truth. "

People tell the truth in The Winslow Boy, but they don't need the trademark Mamet f-words to do so. London in 1912 seems far removed from the seamy contemporary settings of much of his stage and film work.

"I like the Victorian era and the Edwardian era and I do a lot of reading about it. I've been a great fan of Kipling all my life, of Victorian, Edwardian codes of gentility and honor. I've found that extraordinarily attractive, and that's why I was drawn to this material. But this story wasn't meant to be a history. One of the reasons it's set in 1912 is it's "Once upon a time . . . ' "

But a time with eerie parallels to our own, with a Balkan crisis and political scandals --

" . . . and also it's a time of great prosperity that is about to change. So if World War I breaks out again, then I'm going to start worrying."

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