The English prisoner
David Mamet--famous for his in-your-face characters, brutal and frequently raunchy dialogue, and deliberate, staccato prose about, ya know, dat thing--would seem an unlikely choice to write and direct a screen adaptation of British playwright Terence Rattigan's genteel drama about injustice. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for Glengarry Glen Ross), whose body of work is actually far more varied than generally realized, does a commendable job with The Winslow Boy, bringing delicate emotion and unexpected humor to the story and eliciting superb performances from an unusually fine cast.
Set in 1910 Britain, the story deals with the real-life tale of 13-year-old naval cadet Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards), who is expelled from school after being found guilty of stealing a five-shilling postal order from a classmate. Convinced of his son's innocence, Arthur Winslow (the brilliant Nigel Hawthorne) dedicates himself to clearing Ronnie's name, despite the financial and psychological burdens it places on the family. When the country's leading lawyer, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam, giving an unexpectedly nuanced and utterly convincing performance), agrees to take the case, Arthur must use his daughter's dowry money and his elder son's Oxford tuition to pay the bills.
The daughter, Catherine (Mamet's wife and frequent artistic collaborator, Rebecca Pidgeon), gracefully accepts her changed circumstances, equally determined to see her brother cleared. An ardent suffragette, she initially clashes with Morton, whose conservative views offend her, but she comes to realize he is Ronnie's only hope. It is Grace, the children's mother (played by the wonderful British actress Gemma Jones), who suffers the most, watching wistfully as her once-tranquil middle-class life is sacrificed.
The real case aroused strong emotions across the country, much of it in favor of the boy, and provoked a media frenzy that will be all too familiar to contemporary audiences. It proved a landmark case, because, until that time, no one had been able to sue any department (such as the British Admiralty) or institution (such as the naval college in question) that was considered part of the king's domain. The British Crown was deemed incapable of wrongdoing and was, therefore, immune from legal action. In order to file suit against the Admiralty, Morton (patterned after the real-life barrister in the case, Edward Carson) would have to obtain the signature of King Edward VII on a document called a Petition of Right.
Best known for his spare but savage plays about people of low moral standing (American Buffalo, Speed the Plow) and such elaborate con-game films as The Spanish Prisoner and The House of Games, Mamet brings gentleness and what--for him, at least--could almost pass for warmth to The Winslow Boy. He finds low-key but credible humor in characters and situations, while infusing the overall film with a courtly, empathetic tone.
Hawthorne (best known for his roles in The Madness of King George and Amistad) and Jones (Sense and Sensibility) are always superb. The surprise here is Northam (seen, sort of, in Emma and The Net), whose inflection and manner are perfect and who somehow makes Morton both aloof and likable.
It would be too strong to say that Pidgeon (a Mamet veteran, having appeared in The Spanish Prisoner and the stage version of Oleanna) constitutes the weak link in the movie. Yet her cadence and manner of speaking retain too discernible a touch of "Mametspeak," the staccato rhythm associated with many of her husband's works. Although she's portraying a committed feminist and a highly intelligent individual, her character feels a trifle too modern. The performance isn't bad so much as it feels less of a piece with the rest of the actors.
Composer Alaric Jans contributes a lovely score for the film's opening and closing segments. The one weak technical credit is the audio, which is noticeably poor in sections; voices fade in and out as if not miked properly. Overall, however, this engaging film proves a total pleasure, suitable for moviegoers who like their films a bit old-fashioned but still mainstream.
The Winslow Boy.
Written and directed by David Mamet; adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan. Starring Guy Edwards, Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon, and Gemma Jones. Opens Friday.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.