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The Winslow Boy (1999)

Posted on the 26 September 2014 by Christopher Saunders
The Winslow Boy (1999)David Mamet breaks from profane verbal sparring for a genteel Terence Rattigan adaptation. The Winslow Boy (1999) is one of Rattigan's perennials, already adapted into a classic 1948 movie. Mamet's version is tastefully directed, reasonably faithful and well-acted, yet never strikes the necessary spark.
In 1911 England, Osbourne Naval Academy expels teenaged Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) for stealing a postal note. Father Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne) believes he's innocent. Arthur summons high-profile lawyer Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) to defend Ronnie, against the advice of daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon). The case drags on through several trials, Parliamentary hearings and adverse press coverage, becoming a national scandal. Yet despite attacks on his family, Arthur refuses to yield.
Where the earlier film was a courtroom drama, Mamet's Winslow Boy elides the trial, instead focusing on its impact on individuals. Arthur risks his reputation to ensure justice is done; even Catherine says that moving on will cause less damage than continued defense. In pragmatic terms Arthur's stand seems ridiculous: who cares about a five-shilling theft? But the Royal Navy's refusal to budge becomes national shame in the run-up to World War I. Sir Robert asks why the Navy risks disgrace over such a trifling matter.
Winslow Boy evokes Edwardian society through its delicate characterizations. We admire Arthur's stand even if it seems ridiculous; he's nothing more or less than a loving father. Catherine's the most intriguing character: a headstrong suffragette, she's betrothed to a stuffy soldier (Aden Gillett) who views her liberalism as eccentricity. She pegs Sir Robert as an Establishment sell-out, little realizing the risks he faces just in taking the case. Unsurprisingly, the movie ends with hints of romance between Catherine and Sir Robert.
The cast is faultless. Nigel Hawthorne is the emotional anchor, never doubting his son or wavering on principal despite great personal cost. Rebecca Pidgeon is endearingly haughty and self-convinced. Jeremy Northam gets the showiest role, investing Sir Robert with smug charm. Gemma Jones interjects wit and sanity as Arthur's exasperated wife. Neil North plays a minor role, having starred in the earlier Winslow Boy adaptation.
Yet The Winslow Boy seems underwhelming, more genteel than genuinely engaging. Maybe the culprit's Mamet's direction, handsomely competent but unremarkable. Or maybe it's the stiffly faithful rendering of Rattigan's text: perhaps it requires more stylish treatment, like Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea. Whatever the reason, Winslow Boy proves merely adequate where it should be moving.

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