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The Winslow Boy

Supreme craftsman wastes his skill

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by David Mamet, based on the play by Terence Rattigan

With Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam, Guy Edwards

David Mamet seems to be moving down the motion picture rating scale. After penning such profanity-laden plays as Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo, he wrote and directed The Spanish Prisoner, a PG-rated thriller. Now he writes (adapting from a play by Terence Rattigan) and directs an costume period drama The Winslow Boy, which bears a proud G rating. Next for him, I presume, will be directing a Disney cartoon (and I will pay to see that!).

This aside, however, The Winslow Boy bears all trademarks of a good Mamet work: dramatic intensity and clarity, visual elegance and beautiful shot composition, intricate multi-personal conflicts between characters and society, and terse, clipped, staccato speech. The Winslow Boy surprises not only by its restraint, but also by having a rather affecting love story at its periphery. Overall, though, it’s a mild disappointment--one thing is not as good as the other elements, and this is the crucial aspect. I’m speaking of the source, the original Rattigan play.

This play (and Mamet’s entirely too reverential adaptation of it) starts in a calm and dignified fashion, yet sometime around the end of the first reel it creates a situation which is positively awash with tantalizing possibilities. The title character, Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards), was just expelled from a naval academy for committing a trivial and petty crime; yet he assures his father, Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) of his innocence. His father believes; and thus is begun the legal crusade which will go from the Admiralty all the way to the British Parliament. Joining the struggle to clear the boy’s name are his elder sister, suffragette Catherine Winslow (Rebecca Pidgeon) and a famous celebrity attorney Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam).

This plot setup can be spun in so many tantalizing ways; here you have the seeds for the riveting courtroom drama, a social satire, or even for a good old classical suspense/mystery. Mamet’s treatment is understated, yet there are elements of all the above in The Winslow Boy. The first meeting between Ronnie and Morton, with the latter questioning the possible culprit, is positively electrifying with its steadily increasing pace of questions and answers, with information flying at the viewers at astonishing speed. It also helps that Mamet withheld the details about Ronnie’s alleged crime until this scene, and the revelation of the events that led to his dismissal is undeniably exciting.

However, this film mostly tries to work as an intricate character drama, and I guess it largely succeeds at this. The cast is uniformly excellent, including Rebecca Pidgeon, who was a bit annoying in The Spanish Prisoner. Here she’s very good, and even gets a chance to wear the same sunglasses as in the earlier movie. Her scenes with Northam are very well observed, and result in the movie’s most affecting storyline, a romance that is only hinted at, and never explicitly addressed. This subplot even derives most of its power from the fact that it’s communicated solely through silent glances, attitudes, and Mamet’s expert use of mise-en-scene (notice how the amount of the flowers in the garden changes in the course of the movie).

As a matter of fact, Mamet’s work as a director here can not be faulted; it’s crisp, beautiful, painterly (recalling such artists as Whistler), and communicates a lot of information via minute visual details. But for the life of me I can’t imagine why did he pick such a mediocre play, and why he seems as much constrained by his source as Rattigan himself seems to have been constrained by the true story which he was adapting into a play. The Winslow Boy is content to calmly spin its wheels for hundred minutes, with elegance and precision, being consistently engaging and entertaining--and yet pretty much nothing really happens, and nobody really seems to change much, and all the opportunities for shattering drama or penetrating social critique are lost.

The overall impression of The Winslow Boy is that of a supreme craftsman wasting his energy, skill, and talent on a trifle. I wish that next time Mamet would adapt one of his own superior plays, no matter what would be the rating of the resulting movie.