*** 1/2 Stars
(UK 1999) Rated G
Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam, Gemma Jones
Directed by David Mamet
Writing credits: David Mamet, Terrence Rattigan
Sony Pictures Classics * 104 minutes
In 1908, George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old cadet at the Isle of Wight's Osbourne Naval College, was accused of stealing a five shilling postal order from the locker of a fellow cadet, forging the cadet's signature, and cashing it. Despite the boy's protestations of innocence, he was expelled. His father, Martin Archer-Shee (a Liverpool bank manager) fought mightily to obtain satisfaction.
Based on this true story, Terrence Rattigan wrote THE WINSLOW BOY, now adapted by David Mamet for the screen. Rattigan moved the timefrome of his play a few years, to 1912-1914, so that the boy's case would constitute a distraction from urgent issues relative to WWI.
Rattigan took certain liberties with the characters, transforming the conservative real-life Catherine (with her consent) into a feminist Suffragette (portrayed here by Rebecca Pidgeon, a.k.a. Mrs. David Mamet). Martin Archer-Shee becomes Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne), proud patriarch of a family that includes iconoclastic Catherine, irresponsible bounder Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon), and young Ronnie, the unfairly accused youth (Guy Edwards) stands in for young George. Edward Carson, the barrister who had achieved some recognition -- and notoriety -- years earlier as the man who prosecuted Oscar Wilde (during Wilde's libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry), is transformed into Lord Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), a brilliant and ruthless advocate.
The film begins as an archetypal Edwardian drawing room drama, well-stocked with hopelessly civilized people engaging in relentlessly civilized banter in their ordered little world, until misfortune strikes and turns their world upside down. The film astonishingly portrays a world in which even high emotion is conveyed with moderated tones, complete politeness, and King's English. Could the British of the Edwardian era have really been such tightasses? Yet as the film progresses, these stifled individuals begin to show a quiet humanity and a passion that belies their stiff upper lips. Instead of archetypes, they become real people whose driving motivations only begin to become clear to us by the end of the film, leaving us wanting more.
THE WINSLOW BOY looks like a stage play adapted for the cinema. The film has a claustrophobic feel, and appears to be blocked as if for a stage set. Yet this "closed-in" feeling seems appropriate to the simmering emotions below the surface of the Winslow family as they fight for "right to be done." David Mamet's signature is all over it, particularly in a scene in which Lord Robert skillfully interrogates young Ronnie in a beautifully-paced, staccato exchange.
The performances are uniformly first-rate. Nigel Hawthorne's face and voice are nearly expressionless throughout the film, yet he clearly shows us the inner turmoil that his dashed dreams and love for his young son generate in his soul. Gemma Jones, as his wife, effectively conveys the complex ambivalence of a wife watching her husband obsessively risk ruination of a family for a cause.
Rebecca Pidgeon as the suffragist, smoking-for-scandalous-effect Catherine (the "Kate Winslet Role"), is the perfect observer/participant for all this politeness. She seems to enact the entire movie with one eyebrow arched, in a state of perpetual bemusement. Her Catherine is strong without being strident, caring without being maudlin, sensible but still sentimental.
The film also boasts a too-short, but welcome appearance by Aden Gillett (familiar to jazz age buffs as the bohemian photographer Jack Maddox in the BBC's HOUSE OF ELLIOT series) as Catherine's fiance John Watherstone. Gillett has a natural charisma that makes him perhaps too charming as John, an utterly correct English gentleman who caves in to his father as the political fallout from the Winslow case threatens his engagement to Catherine. Their early scenes are delightful, indicating a true match of sentiments that is perhaps not completely consistent with Watherstone's true character.
Young Guy Edwards as Ronnie is perhaps the strangest looking boy I've ever seen in film. He is by turns a normal boy and a sixty-year-old man in miniature. Someone decided to use a blue-tinted makeup on him, which makes him look positively cadaverous. Yet the contrasts in his demeanor between excitement at the number of cars on a train and his inscrutable face as he denies his guilt to his father, show an acting discipline far beyond his years.
Standing out from even this fine group, however, is Jeremy Northam as Lord Robert. The minute Northam first appears on screen, this genteel drama crackles with life. For all that I have been known to drool embarrassingly over any man on screen whose speech patterns indicate a British Isles origin, Northam has never been one of my favorites. There's something oily and villainous about him, which made him less-than-optimal casting as Mr. Knightley in 1996's EMMA. Yet here, that vague malevolence plays to his advantage. Lord Robert is rude, arrogant, condescending, perfectly coiffed and attired -- and very, very good at what he does. While we never really understand what motivates the ambitious Lord Robert to take such a relatively insignificant case, jeopardizing his brilliant future in the process, he becomes gradually and imperceptibly more human as the film progresses.
By the time the film ended, I wanted to know what would happen to these characters next. Alas, we can only speculate.
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