A number of films have been made about great courtroom dramas. Some have been over basic human rights. And a few have been made about the challenges and efforts to get human rights cases to court. "The Winslow Boy" is all three of those things. The last was the most difficult and trying. Based on a true story, this is a masterful tale of family love, honor and integrity. But, it's one that shows the sacrifices, tribulations and dissensions among family members.
It is not a film about justice. It is about right. Justice falls within the law, but right is a higher aspect of life, humanity and civilization. And that is wonderfully articulated in this film. "Let right be done," could be another title for the film.
Besides the drama, this story is laced with humor throughout. It is masterfully handled so that the serious aspect is never forgotten. The humor is interspersed among the cast and relates to other things of the day. Popular music and phonographs, the suffrage movement, styles and dress of the day allow for some light respites in the family's two-year wait and worry about the case.
The story takes place in England. It is based on the George Archer-Shee discharge of 1908 that was tried and settled in 1910. The names of the characters have been changed, and some of the characters in the film are different from those in the actual case. But the details of the case are about as they occurred. That includes the final statement from the Attorney General.
Sir Robert Morton is based on Sir Edward Carson, a politician and one of Britain's brightest barristers of the time. Where Morton is single in this film, Carson was married. The Archer-Shee family in the film is the Winslows. The wrongly accused Ronnie Winslow in real life (George Arche-Shee) had an older half-brother but not a sister. The addition of Catherine Winslow in this film provides for some excellent discussions and witty dialog, as well as a subtle, underlying romance.
The cast for this story is superb. One can't imagine better choices for all the lead roles. Or any better performances. Robert Donat, one of the greatest actors of all time, plays Sir Robert Morton. He gives his character an air of aloofness that comes across clearly as snobbery. But, as the story unfolds he changes ever so slowly and later explains to Catherine Winslow why his detachment is intentional. Margaret Leighton is superb in the role of Ronnie's sister. Catherine also is an intellectual favorite of the father, Arthur Winslow. Cedric Hardwicke fills that role superbly. He has just retired from a major bank position. He suffers from severe arthritis, but is determined to clear his son's name.
Marie Lohr is excellent as Grace Winslow. She's at first, a trusting and caring mother, but then worries more about the family's comforts and social standing than about her son's honor. She has a long line of dialog in which she expresses her dismay over the case so disrupting their family. Jack Watling is very good as brother Dickie Winslow. His easygoing, modern attitude as a college student at Oxford is a contrast to the other characters and shows a diversity among family members. And, Neil North is superb as Ronnie. It was his first role in film, and his only substantial one of just ten movies. North was an antiques dealer with a very short career in acting as a boy. But, he returned to film more than 40 years later to play the First Lord in the 1999 remake of "The Winslow Boy."
Other characters are important in the story and are played superbly as well. Desmond Curry (Basil Radford) is a solicitor and friend of the Winslows who helps them secure Sir Robert Morton to handle their case. Frank Lawton is very good as John Watherstone, Catherine's fiancé. He eventually leaves her over the Winslow's persistence in pursuing the case. Kathleen Harrison is excellent and has one substantial line as Violet, the family's maid of 25 years. The rest of the cast excel in their roles. Most notable are Francis L. Sullivan as the Attorney General, Walter Fitzgerald as the First Lord, Nicholas Hannen as Colonel Watherstone, Ivan Samson as Captain Flower of the Naval Academy, Ernest Thesiger as handwriting expert Ridgeley Pierce, Evelyn Roberts as the Member of Parliament Hamilton, and Kynaston Reeves as Lord Chief Justice.
The real George Archer-Shee story is a very interesting read. It has a sad outcome with World War I. But, it included a government settlement to the family for its hardships in this injustice. It was a sizable amount. Sir Robert Morton alludes to compensation for the family in the end of this film. And, the movie leaves the audience with a happy thought of a blooming romance around the corner between Sir Robert and Catherine Winslow.
This highly entertaining and enjoyable film gives audiences a look at some top British actors of the day. It's a wonderful story with superb acting all around.
Here are some favorite lines. For more poignant and clever dialog, see the Quotes section under this IMDb Web page of the film.
Sir Robert Morton, "It has a certain ring about it, hasn't it? Let right be done."
First Lord, "In certain cases, private rights may have to be sacrificed for the public good."
Catherine Winslow, "But brute stubbornness may not be such a bad quality in the face of injustice."
Sir Robert Morton, "I'm very glad to hear it. Both of those activities would be highly unsuitable in that hat."
Lord Chief Justice, "You are prejudicing your case by these interruptions." Sir Robert Morton, "Oh? Do you really think so, my Lord?"
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