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Weekly Alibi The Winslow Boy

Law and Order

By Devin D. O'Leary

JUNE 14, 1999:  As a playwright, David Mamet is known for his vicious verbal assaults (Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo). As a screenwriter, Mamet is known for his dark, crackling wit (Wag the Dog, The Untouchables, The Postman Always Rings Twice). As a movie director, Mamet is known for his twisty mindgames (The Spanish Prisoner, Homicide, House of Games). With his latest feature film effort, however, Mamet adds a new page to his résumé. Based on a play by Terence Rattigan (The Browning Version, Separate Tables), The Winslow Boy is a gentle, G-rated parable about a dogged quest for justice in turn of the century Britain.

Those familiar with Mamet's salty, invective-laced dialogue may be surprised to see his kinder, gentler side. Still, it's not hard to see what it is in Rattigan's celebrated work that drew Mamet's interest. The Winslow Boy is loosely based on the true story of a 13-year-old cadet who was kicked out of the Royal Naval Academy, for allegedly stealing a five-shilling postal order from another cadet's locker. Despite protestations of his innocence, the boy was booted from the Academy without benefit of a trial. Morally outraged, the boy's father waged a long legal battle to have his son exonerated and his family's good name restored. Mamet has always had a taste for characters with singular, laser-like obsessions, and Mr. Winslow's bull-headed quest for justice makes him a prototypical Mamet hero. Eventually, the case became a media sensation, inspiring endless newspaper articles, numerous political cartoons and creating a spirited public backlash against the British military in the years just prior to World War I.

Nigel Hawthorne (best known for his Academy Award-nominated title role in The Madness of King George) stars as Mr. Arthur Winslow (Mr. Martin Archer-Shee in real life), a working class, but well-off bank manager in 1910 London. Upon learning of his youngest son's expulsion from the Naval Academy on the spurious theft and forgery charges, Mr. Winslow mounts an unwavering campaign to see justice done. To these ends, he secures the services of Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), a fiery young member of Parliament and celebrated attorney -- sort of the F. Lee Bailey of his day. Since Morton is a conservative opposed to women's suffrage, Winslow's radical daughter, Catherine (Mamet's wife and frequent star Rebecca Pidgeon), is opposed to hiring the showboating barrister. Nevertheless, Morton takes the Winslow case and begins to untangle its complicated legal technicalities.

Although The Winslow Boy would seem to be your usual courtroom drama, it actually avoids the courtroom entirely and concentrates, instead, on the kitchen sink drama surrounding the legal proceedings. Normally, I don't like courtroom dramas -- they're usually stagey, artificial and overwrought -- but I actually found myself hungering for the legal goings-on here. Mamet has done a fine job of "opening up" the play and making The Winslow Boy feel less claustrophobic than your typical stage-to-screen adaptation. Still, his decision to concentrate on the family and not the case seems like an odd one. By all accounts, the Winslow Case (a.k.a. the Archer-Shee Case) was a corker, and it would have been nice to see rather than hear about the explosive courtroom antics. Instead, much of the film concentrates on older daughter Catherine and her love/hate romance with Sir Morton. Although her "hopeless" battles for suffrage are meant to be a metaphor for the seeming hopelessness of her brother's case, it's frankly too far off the subject, and Mamet would have done better to concentrate more on the family's painful struggle.

When it does stick to issues of justice, The Winslow Boy is on solid ground. The movie's main legal battle revolves around an obscure point of English law that basically says the British military -- being an extension of the Crown and therefore divinely inspired -- is infallible and cannot be sued. In order to pursue the case, the family must first obtain a special dispensation from the King himself. The simple written content of this dispensation -- "Let Right Be Done" -- becomes a sort of motto for the entire film. Ultimately, The Winslow Boy draws a fine line between "justice" and "right." Although justice can be corrupted, right remains a moral absolute.

The pursuit of righteousness becomes a thorny issue -- one that has strong repercussions even today. Mr. Winslow is ready to sacrifice everything in order to clear his son's name. Is it worth it? The truth is, no one would ever have heard of the black mark on young master Winslow's record had the family not pursued their case. Why was such a petty crime turned into a national scandal in the first place? Was it really worth the government's time to pursue this minor matter in such a public forum? Parallels with the recent Whitewater scandal are obvious.

Despite Mamet's manly résumé, The Winslow Boy is not what you'd call blood-pumping cinema. Those raised on a steady diet of Masterpiece Theater will be its most receptive audience. Those looking for the vitriolic bark and bite of Mamet's earlier work should stay home and rent The Edge.

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