by Cathleen Myers
This is not only one of the most underrated films of the year. It may also be the best. Unlike An Ideal Husband, which has very little feel of the 1890’s, The Winslow Boy is completely steeped in the atmosphere of pre-war London (the action begins in 1912): Language, manners, characterizations, costumes - everything seems perfectly "period" in this shattering family drama that nonetheless is uncannily modern (even unto the headlines about the "troubled situation in the Balkans"). It is all the more remarkable that David Mamet, more famous for action films and gritty modern realism than for quiet drawing room drama, not only directed but adapted Terence Rattigan’s play himself. It is a brilliant screenplay, wonderfully suspenseful without a single wrong note, historically.
Rattigan’s play is based on the notorious real life case, is the story of a 14 year old Royal Naval Academy cadet expelled for forging a 5 shilling note, and his middle class family’s costly legal battle to prove his innocence. Despite its simple story and restrained acting (the characters never forget that they are members of the professional middle class in turn of the century London!), this is a shatteringly dramatic film and it almost does the impossible: It is one of the great courtroom dramas of the century without a single courtroom scene. Unlike most American films about an Ordinary Family that Dares To Take On the Establishment, The Winslow Boy shows the terrible price that such families must usually pay to see "Right" done.
Into this seemingly hopeless situation comes a very unusual White Knight, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam in a dashing star turn) , a star barrister and rising young Conservative MP who agrees to take the case - very much against his own party’s interests. Fans of Oscar Wilde will be interested to know that Sir Robert is based on Edward Carson (later Lord Carson), the attorney who successfully defended Lord Queensbury in his lawsuit against Wilde in the case that led to Wilde’s arrest. Though a Conservative, Carson did, in fact, take on a number of real-life "underdog" cases like this one and was something of a real life hero and almost as witty in real life as he is in the film.
Mamet’s chief contribution to the script - which he works seamlessly into the story - is Sir Robert’s subtle attraction to Catherine Winslow (Rebecca Pigeon), the feminist daughter of the family, who finds herself drawn to the brilliant attorney in spite of her strong opposition to most his political views. That Northam and Pigeon are able to convey the sexual magnetism between their characters without once stepping outside the boundaries of Edwardian propriety is a tribute to both their performances and to Mamet’s screenplay.
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