Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Winslow Boy

By Marc Savlov

JUNE 7, 1999: 

D: David Mamet; with Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon, Gemma Jones, Guy Edwards, Matthew Pidgeon, Colin Stinton, Aden Gillett, Sarah Flind. (G, 110 min.)

What's this? A Mamet film without the usual incendiary peppering of ricocheting epithets? A period costume drama? A G rating? Heaven forfend. Despite the unusual nature of The Winslow Boy and the shocking absence of the more traditional aspects of Mametian dialogue, this adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1946 play is still a shocker, and not only because it's a vituperative courtroom drama that very rarely enters into the courtroom. Set in 1910, the movie's Winslow boy is 13-year-old Ronnie (Edwards), a young British naval cadet who returns home to his upper-class family's home in London thoroughly disgraced, and more than a little terrified of his stiff-upper-lip father's (Nigel Hawthorne, The Madness of King George) reaction to the exceedingly bad news. Accused of stealing another cadet's five-shilling postal order and then cashing it, Ronnie has been summarily sacked and tossed out on his ear without any suitable venue of recompense. After Ronnie confesses to his father that he did not, indeed, make off with the money in question ("You cannot lie to me," the elder Winslow gravely intones, "for I am your father and I shall know it." Coming from Hawthorne, you believe it.), the entire family is thrown into the unenviable position of having to defend their sibling and son from nothing less than the Crown, which oversees the actions of the Royal Naval Academy, effectively making it so that their only defense lies in suing the state. Of course, in England of 1910 such things simply were not done, and the clearing of the boy's name appears to be an arduous and ungainly task. While Ronnie's mother seeks to shield her son against any further malicious slander, her husband goes all out, seeking and finally winning the assistance of coolly calculating barrister Sir Robert Morton, who, after grilling the boy relentlessly, comes to the conclusion that his protestations of innocence are truthful. Sister Catherine, meanwhile, finds her impending marriage to Regimental Army man John Watherstone threatened by the case's exploding publicity, and father Arthur sees his increasingly slipshod health begin to fail. Mamet is exploring the tension and subsequent breakdown put on the family by the state here, but more than that he's crafted a winning doppelganger of more recent court cases such as the trials of O.J. Simpson and recent White House goings-on. Echoes of both can be found in the groundswell of tacky publicity (signs, buttons, banners, and cartoons adorn London as the case comes to full boil) and the public's incessant craving for more. If not for the period costumes, The Winslow Boy could easily be transposed to current times. Mamet's dialogue is still on the mark, rapid-fire, and as cutting as an antique straight razor. Hawthorne, Pidgeon, and Edwards as young Ronnie all acquit themselves admirably, but it's Northam, with his black-clad seeming indifference that cuts to the heart of the film. It's not your typical Mamet, certainly, but still unmistakably the playwright-director's heady, biting brew.
3.5 stars

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