Published May 1, 1999
David Mamet’s remake of The Winslow Boy — which was first adapted for the screen from Terence Rattigan’s play by Anthony Asquith in 1948 — gets my universally-coveted double stars not so much because it is a wonderful movie as because it is a wonderful event — a poke in the eye to the Zeitgeist to give new hope to the culturally war-weary. Though it has rather the look and feel of a filmed play, the film is nevertheless almost shockingly at odds with all our late-century cultural predispositions and therefore heartily to be recommended. One can but marvel that someone like Mamet, whose name has not hitherto been associated with traditional ideas of honor or reticence, should have found it an appealing property, since he has allowed Rattigan’s celebration of these things to come through unharassed by more contemporary moral verities. All four of the film’s major characters are presented to us as having been schooled in the manly art of managing trust as it was understood 80 or 100 years ago. And one of them is a woman.
The story is based on actual events in England in1910 but is set in 1911-12. A boy of 14 called Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) is dismissed from the Royal Naval College at Osbourne on the grounds that he has forged the name of another boy on a postal order for five shillings — now worth about 40 cents. He insists that he didn’t do it. His father, Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne), asks his son to tell him the truth, because “a lie between you and me cannot be hidden.” Ronnie repeats his denial. This is good enough for his father, who takes his son’s case up with the naval authorities and then with one government tribunal after another in an effort to have Ronnie reinstated. In every case the courts find that the boy stole the postal order, the navy acted correctly and the dismissal should stand. Meanwhile, the cost of pursuing the action virtually bankrupts his father and ruins his health, while his sister’s fiancé breaks off their engagement, partly in response to her diminishing financial prospects and partly as a result of the public obloquy heaped on the family in the press and the music halls (the TV of the day) when the case becomes a cause célPbre.
The sister, Catherine, is played by Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife, who has just the right amount of fervent earnestness for this committed suffragette. A woman of strongly progressive views in general, she finds herself cast in the role of her father’s principal supporter in what increasingly comes to seem a quixotic quest to clear the family name. It is a paradoxical position for her to be in, since it makes her something of a champion of what we have since been taught to call “patriarchy” and requires of her a positively Virgilian sense of masculine honor — that is of the fiat justitia, ruat caelum variety — while her more traditionally minded mother, Grace (Gemma Jones), is driven to the point of open rebellion against the paterfamilias. She takes her husband to task for “destroying yourself and your family” and asks him tauntingly: “For what?”
“For justice, Grace,” he says meekly.
“Are you sure it isn’t pride?” she asks.
“I don’t think so.”
His self-doubt suggests a becoming humility underlying what might otherwise appear as mere stubbornness. Catherine is more certain of the righteousness of his cause than he is and helps him engage the most celebrated barrister of the day, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), to take their case before Parliament, which must now approve what is called a Petition of Right — if, that is, having exhausted all other alternatives Ronnie is to be reinstated. Catherine joins the family in importuning Sir Robert in spite of her own deep distaste for his conservative (and Conservative) politics. He is, she says, “not a man of feeling” and in fact has a “dead heart.” But although she believes he is only taking the case for the publicity, she is content because he is the best — and, in spite of herself, is impressed (as we must be) with his cross-examination of Ronnie, as a result of which he agrees to take the case.
Interestingly, this brief passage is almost the only moment of forensic display in a film that would seem to be a natural for an extended court-room drama. The trials and most of the public brouhaha all take place off-stage, which if anything exaggerates the staginess of the piece. Such deliberate defiance of any expectation that it will accommodate itself to the demands of the cinema, or even of more conventional drama, serves to increase the picture’s focus on the four main characters, giving it an almost claustrophobic quality. Yet this is just what is needed in a play or a film that is so entirely about character. Mamet puts the three Winslows and Sir Robert under the microscope as surely as the British legal system did their prototypes — and, like them, they stand up to the scrutiny remarkably well. No one who has come through the last thirty or forty years of the therapeutic culture with some sense of honor intact will fail to shed a discreet tear or two when Sir Robert proves, in spite of himself, that he has not got a “dead heart” but one capable of being stirred, as ours must be, by the words of the Petition: “Let right be done.”