Video Review: The Winslow Boy
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker
A G-rated film for a sophisticated audience.
It isn’t very often that we come across a G-rated film in our local video store and it is even more unusual to find one meant for adults. In fact, we have become so attuned to perceive the G rating as “kid’s stuff” that we might dismiss another G-rated film as one that doesn’t achieve its cinematic or entertainment potential. The Winslow Boy is a great G-rated film that is intelligent, witty, and meant for a sophisticated audience.
Set in turn-of-the-century England, the Winslow family is distraught when their youngest son is expelled from the Royal Naval Academy for stealing. Young Ronnie is obstinate that he did not do it, prompting his father to begin a campaign to clear the boy’s name. The family enlists a top lawyer to handle the case and it soon escalates into a national media frenzy (not unlike high-profile cases in our day). Political, social, and financial pressures push down on the family, threatening their status and the fate of their son.
The film is written and directed by David Mamet from the play by Terence Rattigan. Mamet himself is a well-known American playwright who has directed several films in the last few years including “The Spanish Prisoner.” He brings his talent for idiosyncratic dialogue to the film. It is tight, believable, and always interesting. Most importantly, Mamet understands the story he’s telling and does not succumb to the temptation to exploit the events that would be great cinematic moments, but would be tangents to the real story.
The film’s believable and likeable characters draw the most interest. They have foibles, but are essentially good, moral people. Arthur Winslow, the stern Victorian patriarch, shows uncommon love and concern for his family. When he asks his son for an explanation, he listens carefully and believes him without question. His son’s defense causes hardship to the entire family and, when his wife confronts him about it, he listens and validates her concerns while at the same time assuring her that his motives have always been pure. Arthur’s daughter Catherine, the eldest sibling, entertains feminist ideals and aggressively maintains her opinions. Arthur accepts her wholeheartedly, with the love and respect due an equal.
Too often in today’s movies about this period, the feminist characters tend to reflect our contemporary ideas rather than being true to the time, but Catherine’s political and personal behavior is realistic. She doesn’t expect the system to change overnight and is committed to working as long as it takes.
Through Catherine’s vociferous opinion, the Winslows see Sir Robert Morton, the barrister, as an unfeeling and conniving strategist. As they get to know him better, they, and we, see him as a heroic and sensitive friend.
Not only are the characters interesting, but the performances are inspired. Nigel Hawthorne and Jeremy Northam, two of England’s premiere actors turn in laudable performances as Arthur Winslow and Robert Morton. Rebecca Pidgeon a staple of Mamet’s movies, does a brilliant job portraying Catherine and the supporting actors are equally solid, including Guy Edwards as the Winslow Boy.
On the surface, the story is about saving the Winslow name, but on a deeper level it is not about court trials or family honor. Catherine, the story’s main character, learns that superficial judgments lead to injustice for which we are all guiltyat some point. Court systems, lawyers, and judges constantly force justice to be done, but it is harder to see that right is done in the first place. Sir Robert Morton sums this up so well when he says to Catherine: “Easy to do justice. Hard to do right.”
While it seems natural for Arthur to want to defend his son, it becomes increasingly difficult for him and the entire family. They endure political pressure from friends, social pressure in the form of massive publicity, internal family struggles, and financial pressure. The case requires every ounce of their commitment, but they are motivated by the knowledge that they are right.
Even Morton, the successful lawyer who rarely loses, feels the mounting pressure. He is convinced that the boy is innocent and, instead of giving up the fight when it would be honorable to do so, he sacrifices career advancement to see that right prevails. His mantra is “Let right be done.”
Catherine’s journey in doing the right has another undercurrent. She misjudges Morton in the beginning and the ultimate question of the film is whether she can succeed in doing right by him.
When The Winslow Boy came out in the theaters some critics blasted the film because David Mamet had his characters tell us what was going on instead of simply showing it to us. Mamet’s decision not to show us some otherwise cinematic moments, was not a mistake. If the film is about Sir Robert Morton and the court trial, then Mamet tells a poor story by revealing what happens in court through other characters’ verbal reports. But instead of resorting to the tired cliches of courtroom drama, he illustrates the family dynamic and how it changes through the trial. He assures that, like the Winslows, we find ourselves isolated in the house and our own biases. The hurricane of political rhetoric that lights up England affects the Winslows on a personal level: in their relationships, their economic condition, and in their prejudices. Their battle is not a national one, but a personal one, and Mamet wisely tells that story.
The Winslow Boy is “good” entertainment in the best sense of the word. Not only are the characters rounded and delightful, but Mamet tells the right story in an original way. It is certainly easy to do justice, not so easy to do right.