The Winslow Boy (1999)

reviewed by
Steve Rhodes

A film review by Steve Rhodes
Copyright 1999 Steve Rhodes
RATING (0 TO ****):  *** 1/2

It was a question of a mere 5 shillings, but it was enough in the early 1900s to get a 13-year-old boy sacked from the military college he attended and enough to get the British nation outraged when his father kept trying to get his son's case heard in court.

Writer and director David Mamet's THE WINSLOW BOY, loosely based on this actual case, is gem of a picture in the spirit of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place on the sidelines. People talk about trials and possible trials rather than attending them. Emotions are carefully held in check as they would have been in that era, but the absolutely exquisite performances by the ensemble cast insure that the characters' feelings are nonetheless intense even though displayed with subtlety and grace.

As the story opens, Catherine Winslow, played with carefully controlled spunk by Rebecca Pidgeon, has brought her intended husband, John (Aden Gillett), home to her father so that the two men can discuss the couple's future finances and the size of her dowry. You may remember Rebecca Pidgeon as the slick confidence scheme operator from Mamet's last picture, THE SPANISH PRISONER. She brings a compelling precision and intelligence to all of her parts.

Academy Award nominee Nigel Hawthorne (THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE), in a loving performance, plays Arthur Winslow, Catherine's father. Arthur is an honorable father who wants only the best for his kids and who is willing to risk his family's limited fortune in its pursuit. In a movie with a lesser cast, Hawthorne's masterful performance would have stolen the movie, but his turns out to be but one of many bright lights.

After the matter of the marriage finances is quickly settled, the ensuing celebration is abruptly aborted when a dripping wet 13-year-old Ronnie (Guy Edwards) is seen by his mother, Grace (Gemma Jones), hiding in the garden. It seems that he has been expelled from the Royal Naval College for stealing a 5-shilling postal note.

Arthur, who has long ago established good relations with his son, wants to know if the charge is true, but, before he allows the boy to answer, he issues a stern but respectful admonition. "If you tell me a lie, I shall know, because a lie between us can't be hidden," he warns. The boy, who looks like innocence personified, swears that he's not guilty. Mamet, the master of ambiguity and unanswered questions, makes you wonder right away what the truth is and how that truth will be determined.

As the nation gets wrapped up in "Save the Winslow Boy" fever, which we see only through cartoons laid on desks and posters stuck on walls, Arthur depletes his fortune trying with almost no success to get the boy's case heard in some court. Eventually Arthur decides that, if he is to prevail, he must hire the best lawyer in the land, Sir Robert Morton, who is also a leading Conservative Member of Parliament.

As the charismatic and handsome Sir Robert, Jeremy Northam delivers an absolutely mesmerizing performance. A highly intelligent man who keeps his opponents and his supporters guessing what he will do next, Sir Robert is a master legal and political strategist and the type of busy man who allocates you only a few minutes of his precious time to see if it's worth ever seeing you again. He is also an outspoken opponent of women's suffrage, which gives great pain to Catherine, who is a trade union activist and a women's suffrage worker. The charged relationship between these two opposites, who have to pull together, turns out to be easily the most interesting of several subplots. Like the rest of the movie, this relationship makes some twists you don't expect and avoids others that you do.

Although the script doesn't have much of Mamet's signature dialog style, in which two characters exchange fast-paced staccato repartee, it has the overall structure he likes and has a host of fully developed characters. The heart-warming story is the type that Frank Capra would have loved.

Slowly and delicately the movie lays out a series of questions for us? Is the boy innocent, or might it not be as cut and dried as it seems? Will the father ever arrange to get a trial, and, if so, what would be the outcome? And is the father's fanatical pursuit of justice even a good idea? The newspapers accuse him of wasting the government's time and resources, and his once wealthy family is having trouble living in the lifestyle to which they are accused. His son, his wife points out, is quite happy at his new school. The beauty and intelligence of THE WINSLOW BOY methodically lays out questions where lesser movies would quickly provide easy answers.

THE WINSLOW BOY runs 1:50. It is rated G and would be fine for kids old enough to be interested in serious subjects.

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