(director/writer: David Mamet; screenwriter: from Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play; cinematographer: Benoit Delhomme; editor: Barbara Tulliver; cast: Nigel Hawthorne (Arthur Winslow), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Morton), Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow), Gemma Jones (Grace Winslow), Guy Edwards (Ronnie Winslow), Sarah Flind (Violet), Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), Aden Gillett (John Watherstone); Runtime: 104; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999)

“You might have to wait a long time before you find a film with both a family and a lawyer portrayed in such a genuine and likable way.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is an old-fashioned story about personal freedom, government intransigence, political bureaucracy, and justice. It is adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play about a case of family loyalty in 1910 England. It is distinguished by Mamet’s sharply scripted dialogue and a cast that is just outstanding. The Edwardian story is chocked full of sensibility and rife with a tautness that keeps you fully tuned into its dramatics. The real trial depicted in this film is about a 13-year-old English naval student expelled from the Osborne Naval Academy because he stole a five-shilling postal order. It was a big deal in the London headlines at that time and was called the trial of the century in England, with the public taking sides with the wrongly accused youngster.

The film version of that event takes liberties with the real story. The tale begins in 1912, on a rainy London day, in the immaculate sitting room in the capacious early-century house of the Winslows, when the young son brings home bad news from his school. We are introduced to the family patriarch, Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne), his dignified wife Grace (Gemma), the unsuccessful brother Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon), the liberated, cigarette smoking, suffragette, Catherine Winslow (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) and her army officer fiancé John Watherstone (Aden Gillett).

Catherine discovers her 14-year-old brother, Ronnie (Guy Edwards), standing in the garden, soaken wet and frightened. He shows her the letter of his expulsion from the school begging her not to tell his banker father, who so much wanted him to attend that prestigious school. But when the father finds out about his dismissal, he asks only one thing of his son: “Tell me the truth, Did you do it?” When he professes his innocence the entire family backs him, and they decide to take this seemingly trivial matter to court and to parliament. This will prove to be a great burden on the father both economically and physically, it will also strain the relationship of Catherine and John. Dickie will have to leave college for a job at the bank, and it will cause Grace to cutback on her social obligations.

Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam,), the country’s top attorney, is asked by the family to defend the boy and save the Winslow’s name from disgrace. He turns out to be a better and more feeling lawyer from what Catherine expected of him, which adds even more weight to the already intriguing story. He is also a great actor, able to catch the proper Edwardian sophistication required of a gifted and contentious lawyer of that period. His motives for taking the case had been suspect. But when he secretly turns down a highly honored post to continue with the case; even though, those in-the-know about such things think he doesn’t have much chance of winning, Catherine is convinced that she has found a new love in her life.

The Winslow Boy” answers both the legal and moral questions it asks about this case. Its legal theme “Let justice be done” really equates in this particular case to doing the right thing legally, which is acquitting the youngster of the charges. So as Arthur states, “Let right be done.” While on the moral question the hurt father, whose pride had been injured, pursues the suit to get vindication for his family’s name even though he realizes that Ronnie is happy in his new school and what he is doing to his family almost borders on irresponsibility on his part. Yet there is such grace and forthrightness in the father’s demeanor, that he stands out as a sympathetic and lovable giant of a person. Nigel Hawthorne was simply brilliant in this role, conveying an urbane wit and a strong backbone for taking on the fight for a cause he believes in with all his heart.

This is just a wonderful and an almost flawless film (the only flaw: the likable family seemed so smug with their upper-class status). David Mamet has done a masterful job in directing someone else’s words to its fullest potential. On paper the outline for this story and its denouement, do not suggest how great a work this film turned out to be. Even its old-fashioned story is more modern than it first appears to be. You might have to wait a long time before you find a film with both a family and a lawyer portrayed in such a genuine and likable way.

The Winslow Boy Poster