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A Strong Case for 'The Winslow Boy'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Winslow Boy
Jeremy Northam, right, defends Guy Edwards, who plays "The Winslow Boy." (Sony Picture Classics)

David Mamet
Nigel Hawthorne;
Gemma Jones;
Jeremy Northam;
Rebecca Pidgeon
Running Time:
1 hour, 50 minutes
Contains nothing objectionable
I read Terence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy" when I was 8 or 9, picking it randomly from the ceiling-high stacks of books that lined my father's living room. Those books and that living room were his, not ours.

So, pulling down one of those imposing tomes and cracking open the great stories within – with a child's fear of being caught fingering adult possessions – was an almost illicit pleasure.

More than 30 years later, the Winslow Boy has returned to me in wonderful living color. And I won't have to sneak into the living room to reacquaint myself with Arthur Winslow's moral quandary: defending the innocence of his son in the face of public humiliation. David Mamet's graceful, reverent movie adaptation moves along with a deliberating, almost hypnotic flow, strengthened by impeccable, dignified performances from Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon and others.

England is having the empirical equivalent of another day at the office. The year is 1912. Kaiser Wilhelm's military buildup across the drink portends the outbreak of World War I. There's trouble in the Balkans. And those women are clamoring for universal suffrage.

When young Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) is expelled from the Royal Naval College for apparently cashing someone else's five-shilling postal order, it is a grievous matter to his family and their immediate, upper-crust circle.

But when his father, Arthur (Hawthorne), successfully importunes Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) to defend his son's honor before the Admiralty, the Crown and the House of Lords, the Winslow Boy becomes a national sensation.

As Fleet Street cartoonists lampoon the matter, the establishment expresses its outrage and satirical Winslow songs tickle the nation, Arthur Winslow must consider the mounting costs of principle.

Once again, Mamet instructs his actors to get to the essence of a scene with as little verbal interpretation as possible. This collective understatement – on top of Rattigan's flawless design – gives "The Winslow Boy" its genteel restraint and emotional power.

Pidgeon, Mamet's wife and frequent leading lady, carries the emotional weight of the movie, as she agonizes over the possibly irreparable costs of this case to the family, stands up to the chauvinism of her time and wonders insightfully about the true motivations of Sir Robert. Northam deserves special mention as the fastidious latter, keeping us guessing until the final moments about his true intentions and character.

But Hawthorne is master of the house. As Arthur, he almost eclipses his uncanny performance as King George III in "The Madness of King George." The greatness of his performance is evident immediately, as he confronts Ronnie with gentle firmness over the postal order.

"If you tell me a lie, I shall know it," says Arthur. "Because a lie between you and me can't be hidden." The boy looks at his father – this powerfully principled man who values his family with such regal bearing – and replies with unblinking conviction.

"No, father. I didn't."

Arthur Winslow searches his son's face. Then he makes a decision that he will never back down from. He will defend his son, Ronald Arthur Winslow, to the last. It is the beginning of a quietly riveting experience.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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