THE WINSLOW BOY (UK, 1999) *** 1/2
Mamet is not a Cocteau-like "touche-a-tout" but a protean stage-and-screen creator--and full of surprises. His latest and most radical twist is to switch from his tough, rough, vulgar, profane American subjects and colloquialisms to a most un-Mametish direction and writing of a British drama of genteel people, manners and speeches. He succeeds perfectly.
The Winslow Boy is based on a true event in 1908 Edwardian England. George Archer-Shee was the youngest child of a retired Liverpool bank manager. George, then approaching fourteen, and a cadet at the Osbourne Naval College, was expelled for (allegedly) cashing a five-shilling money order that was not his. His father, convinced of the child's claims of innocence, challenged the accusation. Not an easy thing to do since he was up against the College and its parent, the Admiralty which were immune to lawsuits.
The Archer-Shee case quickly caught the imagination of the British public and became a "cause celebre" which, in some ways, reminds me of the notorious Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) which rent France into two camps. The British camps were, it would seem, far from the rabid or hot-under-the collar split across the Channel, so that the Archer-Shee affair did not become notorious and did not create a world-wide stir the way the Dreyfus case did. Anti-Semitism, played a huge role across the Channel; anti-Catholicism may have been a factor in the Archer-Shee turmoil. The French Captain 's indictement was also the result of intense hatred between liberals and what we would call the extreme right today. The storm around the English boy looks like more of a matter of belief or disbelief that a well brought-up subject of the King could stoop to such an un-Britannic deed. In any case, in 1910, the boy George was exonerated.
The playwright Terrence Rattigan, already popular in England for his "well-made" plays since the mid-1930s, had his greatest success in the U.K and the U.S.A right after World War II, when he adapted the Archer-Shee case as the stage-play "The Winslow Boy" (1946). This then became a very good film, as did Rattigan's other best known plays, the Browning Version and Separate Tables.
"The Winslow Boy" moved its family from Liverpool to London, and the time-frame from 1908-1910 to 1912-1914. Mamet's version retains all that, plus very much of the source play, including a change in George's big sister Kate, from a conservative woman in real life to a suffragette in the play.
I will not sort out what is Rattigan's, Mamet's or Caesar's. The Mamet version, as I remember the earlier ones, is both wonderfully faithful to the originals and wonderfully original at the same time -- a neat trick and quite an accomplishment. Nor will I detail the story except for generalities, the first of which is, of course, that the characters show almost painful British politeness, and sang-froid which hides deep emotions.
The second is the matching soberness of the superb performers--I mean all of them. Nigel Hawthorne triumphs as Arthur Winslow, the father. He has a rich background of which only the TV series Yes, Minister and The Madness of King George are familiar to Americans. He never loses his dignity--nor do the other Winslows-- but is never stuffy either. Mr. Winslow (no one could call him just Arthur), goes through agonies which include the melting of his fortune, yet keeps an upper lip worthy of a nation of Empire builders.
Rebecca Pidgeon (she is Mamet's wife and plays Catherine Winslow) is captivating in her disciplined ways. She is particularly appealing when Desmond Curry, the family solicitor, older, forever and silently in love with her, produces a coup: he enlists the help of legal eagle barrister Sir Robert Morton to represent the Winslow boy. Kate, though not a rabid suffragette, is politically at the opposite pole of conservative Sir Robert's. Her logical mistrust of him (unfounded in this case) runs throughout much of the film, enriching her role and his. The barrister is a cold character (or so it seems), seems almost brutal as he questions the boy (but there's a catch to this), is a handsome aristocrat who, when the air is cleared ought to make a perfect mate for Kate. But the movie does not succumb to easy asides of romance.
The entire family behaves nobly but un-stiffly throughout the ordeal which includes the necessity to dismiss servants, to cut down expenses, and to be public figures. Again, none of this is stressed. Facile cliches (in other hands) are absent. We do not get the standard view passersby pointing to any one Winslow and whispering "that's the mother, that's the brother."
A point of historical interest I dug up. The real Sir Robert was Edward Henry, Baron Carson of Duncairn, a major political figure in Ireland and England where he was elected to the House of Commons and served as British solicitor general (1900-1905). In 1895, as Queen's Counsel, he was the cross-examiner at Oscar Wilde's trial for homosexuality, and was instrumental in the conviction of the writer. That's a bit ironical, given that in the Archer-Shee affair, Edward Carson went against the Admiralty, and that for awhile (1916-17) he was First Lord of the Admiralty.
The movie is promising from its start, with plain, sober credits and unobtrusive music. Its construction also shines by its apparent, classical simplicity, something that (cf. Renoir, Ozu, Bresson) is far harder to accomplish than riotous complexity.
Right away, an elegant, sensitive sense of cinema prevails. Within the first fifteen minutes or less, the stage is intelligently set. It is an exposition in the tradition of well-made plays, but then, it is a smooth, un-arbitrary class A exposition which does not hit one with cliched verbal or visual effects. (A class B stage exposition would be the "tell" rather than "show" kind. Here, for instance, a couple of servants might be discussing Arthur Winslow in terms such as "Our master, old-fashioned and skeptical about certain modern trends, is not without a sense of humor. Although he is the unquestioned head of the family, a give-and-take mood prevails; etc. etc.") In other words, the class B exposition is a kissin' cousin of plot-telling in reviews of films and plays.
For the discriminating audience, and especially for those who are familiar with the source play and its film adaptation, the pleasures of Mamet's Winslow are in details of speech and cinematography.
Example: as disgraced young George stands outside the family home, in the rain, he is spotted by the household help. The maid throws a shawl on her back as she goes out to get him. Seconds later, Kate too does this. But the shawls and the gestures are different. Observe with care and you will appreciate the subtleties in the flow and the discreet parallels.
Another example. George, now in another school, comes home by railroad. Boys will be boys. The youngster is all excited by the speed of train and tells Father of his calculations of train speeds, while the old man listens pleasantly but obviously with his thoughts on the family troubles. A family, mind you, which without fanfare or rhetoric is smoothly shown closing ranks and bonding more than ever. This includes Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon, Rebecca's real life brother in his film debut) who has sacrificed studies at Oxford to get employment. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Tony Blair.
The Pidgeons, both American (Rebecca was trained at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts) sound totally British, although my sharp-eared friend Pearl Goodman, rich with the experience of teaching English as a second language, opined that Rebecca's pitch was more American than British.
A third example. In the House, as Kate sit in the Ladies' Gallery, she sees the now increasingly likable Sir Robert holding the floor. It is a mere glimpse through the small openings in a metal trellis. The camera merely touches on the people then cuts outside to a bobby lighting up a smoke. That's lighter than air cinematography and editing.
A final example, among many. One aspect of the movie is a return to the pre-Surgeon General's warnings about smoking. Older pictures exploited the ways, styles and methods of smoking in a huge variety of telling ways. Think of how, in Now Voyager, Paul Henreid lights cigarettes for Bette Davis and himself. Think of To Have and Have Not, and Lauren Bacall's historic entrance Humphrey Bogart's room. Think of thousands of films from all countries and all periods. The cigarette was, arguably, the most creative of all props.
In Winslow the tradition of creative, expressive smoking is resumed, notably by Kate, a modern, liberated woman. At the same time, in an early sequence, the consideration of not overpuffing indoors logically leads Kate and her fiance to step outside for a cigarette, and outside is where the plot needs to place them.
I've seen the film twice, starting at the 1999 Cannes Festival's in
its third or fourth day. (It was an official selection but not in the main
competition). The previous films had been rather disappointing. Winslow
was the first exceptionally good work. Yet there was scant attention paid
to it. I overheard no discussions yet I suppose that The Winslow Boy must
have been deemed "old-fashioned" or "traditional," when the truth is that
it was as clever, subtle and accomplished as a number of older, admired
classics. It is far from a routine filmed or "aired-out" play. What you
get is the best of both worlds.