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'Winslow Boy': Inaction-Packed

By Rita Kempley
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
David Mamet's "The Winslow Boy" may be based on a landmark legal action, but this inert British drama's characters rarely go to court . . . or even out the door. They much prefer to postulate, pace the Persian carpets or primly sip Madeira in the Winslows' tidy drawing room.

That was perfectly acceptable, to be expected even, when the play by Terence Rattigan was first staged in the '40s. In a modern screen adaptation, we expect to see the attorneys tangle, the witnesses break down, the gavel fall. Instead, the case is tried off-screen. Thank goodness for the maid (Sarah Flind), who runs home from her chores with tidings from the outside world.

In Rattigan's original, the characters never left the Winslows' parlor, and although Mamet added several exterior locations – a lush English garden, the Suffragettes' Headquarters, the women's gallery in the House of Commons – the parties of the first part seldom act on their instincts. They agonize over and analyze their every move.

Set in London in 1910, this precious film is based on the real-life story of a young cadet who is accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order and is subsequently expelled from the prestigious Osbourne Naval College. Convinced of his son's innocence, banker Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) and his equally driven daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) embark on a relentless quest for justice.

Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), a dashing, highly regarded attorney, is reluctant to take the case when first approached, but agrees after sparring with the quick-witted and comely Catherine. Thanks in large part to Sir Robert's renown, the press takes an interest and the Winslows' case against the Admiralty becomes a national cause celebre.

The arduous process taxes the financial resources of the aristocratic Winslows, who are obliged to sell off the furnishings to support what may well be a losing cause. Fearing for the future of his military career, Catherine's fiance breaks off their engagement. (This is hardly a tragedy, as it leaves her free to pursue the smashing Sir Robert.) Arthur's health deteriorates, as does that of his wife (Gemma Jones); still he will stop at nothing to defend his son's honor and the family name.

Hawthorne ("The Madness of King George") makes convincing work of the proud British patriarch. However, Northam ("Emma") as the refined, witty Sir Robert, provides much-needed sex appeal, panache and humor, even though Pidgeon ("The Spanish Prisoner") is rather bland as his sparring partner.

"The Winslow Boy," Mamet's seventh film as a writer-director, is also the first based on another author's material. He is surprisingly comfortable with the mannered language, meticulous mind-set and misguided stick-to-itiveness of Arthur and Catherine Winslow. While nobody's quite conning anybody here, surely there's a little con man in every good lawyer.

By the by, we hear from the maid that Sir Bobby gave a helluva final argument. The jurors wept, the crowd went wild. Too bad we missed it.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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