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Winslow Boy, The
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by Isobel Sharp

"Just give back the five shillings and say you're sorry, kid."
3 stars

The difficulty with period pieces is that they often seem mannered and out of sync with the way we expect people to behave today. The difficulty with Mamet is that he can write dialogue that is, while artistic and creative, also stylized and occasionally self-indulgent. A period piece written by Mamet, then, runs the risk of being positively stultifying, a problem which The Winslow Boy suffers from throughout.

Young Ronald Winslow (Guy Edwards) has been expelled from school for stealing a five shilling postal order from a fellow student. The boy insists that he is innocent and his father, Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne) believes him. As any good father would do, he seeks to overturn the unjust accusation which has besmirched his son's good name, and the name of Winslow. However, the school in question is a military one, falling directly under the authority of the Admiralty; it is not a matter which can simply be taken up with an understanding school board and kept private for the sake of the boy. The Crown has passed judgment on Ronnie, and overturning this judgment will require forcing the government to allow its justice to be challenged - never easy, and never a private thing to do.

The charge is led by Arthur Winslow, who is seconded by his daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), both of whom turn every effort to clearing the name of young Ronnie. In the process, they take what might have remained a very private and frankly quite minimal incident and make it front page news all across England. 'The Winslow Boy' becomes a topic of wide discussion, and garners both supporters who believe the boy should have his chance in an open court, and critics who point out the huge amount of time and expense the government is spending on a trivial matter. By the end, you could paper a room with the press the Winslow case has received; indeed, Arthur's study is covered in clippings, supportive banners, and papers relating to the case.

It is not only the time and effort of the Crown, however, which must be spent on the case. Slowly, the Winslow family loses much which it had originally possessed, from money, to social connections, to the very health of its members. Catherine's dowry for her impending marriage goes to pay for the case, and when her suitor's father threatens to prevent the marriage if the Winslows don't get their name out of the papers, she is faced with the loss of her fiancé as well. Arthur, unfailing in support of his son, grows visibly weaker over the course of the film; in the beginning, his cane is a mere prop, but by the end, he requires two canes simply to move from room to room. Seeing the losses faced, stoically and otherwise, by members of his family as a result of this case, Arthur is cast into self-doubt, wondering if the point of honor he had sought to prove might come at too high a price, if it comes at all.

Hawthorne and Gemma Jones, playing Mrs. Winslow, deliver the best performances of the film. Hawthorne gives Arthur considerable complexity, showing us a man who is devoted to his youngest son, yet finds himself faced with the possibility that while trying to protect his honor, he may have inadvertently made him forever 'that boy who stole the postal order'. Jones shows us a no less devoted mother, but one with concerns for her whole family's well-being; she hates the idea of thwarting her husband's ultimately good cause, but fears what will happen once the case is done. Both these actors carefully carve out depth in the relatively restrictive positions a respectable upper-class husband and wife of Edwardian England would be expected to maintain. Confusion and fear, compassion and love, are conveyed in small words and gestures, yet are both apparent and powerful. Jeremy Northam, as the well-known attorney who takes on the Winslow case, also turns in a strong performance, most especially in a scene where he batters young Ronnie with questions before deciding whether or not to defend him.

However, the film has some serious weaknesses. The most obvious is that of Rebecca Pidgeon as Catherine; she seems to have taken the restraint exhibited by Hawthorne and Jones as a cue to show no emotions at all. Her performance consists entirely of clear enunciation and the occasional meaningful glance; even in scenes where the attraction between herself and Northam's character is in the spotlight, she gives off about enough passion and energy to power a small portable flashlight. In addition, the viewer has a difficult time connecting with most of the characters, and finds it hard to see why they (with the exception of Hawthorne and Jones) would connect to anyone at all. Catherine is a suffragette; Northam's character has spoken out against women's suffrage - this should set up an interesting dynamic between the two, but it fails to do so. A stated reason for conflict stands in for actual conflict, and we are told much but shown very little from most of the performances.

The Winslow Boy suffers from many of the problems which typically plague a period piece. The fuss made over a relatively insignificant incident makes up the bulk of the film, and it's difficult for an audience to feel that this is really the huge deal it's made out to be. Much of the action is exposition, and many of the conflicts the characters face don't automatically resonate with the modern viewer. Despite good performances from Hawthorne and Jones, these problems are never really overcome.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=236&reviewer=291
originally posted: 02/16/02 01:51:28
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User Comments

10/28/07 mb loved it. Intelligent dialogue. Great acting. One of the best movies. 5 stars
6/18/06 chienne I did this play at school, this is an excellent film 5 stars
7/27/05 B.McGinnis Excellent, Memorable, Believalble 5 stars
11/20/04 Damson I saw the other version of this film and I believe it is better, though it's not bad. 3 stars
4/10/03 Jack Bourbon Sometimes simple is the best. 4 stars
9/28/02 Peter Sherlock Good stuff! 5 stars
8/29/02 chirpy well acted portrayal of search for justice at high cost 4 stars
11/17/01 Monster W. Kung Simply excellent. 5 stars
9/11/01 Reini Urban With "Land and Freedom" best british film since 30 years ("The Servant") 5 stars
2/13/00 toneely I loved this movie 5 stars
10/06/99 Mairi Thomas Superb acting, powerfully evocative of a time when greater justice was emerging for all. 5 stars
7/10/99 William McGrane This is a terrific movie. Pidgeon is wonderful. 5 stars
7/02/99 Costars Lovged it! Thought it was beautiful & subtle. Delighted it ended well. Too much Mamet. 4 stars
5/10/99 IF Magazine Those expecting a Mamet dialogue jackhammer will be disappointed. It's a lot more subtle. 4 stars
5/10/99 Mr Showbiz Whichever way you look at it, Mamet's adaption of Rattigan's famous play is a triumph. 5 stars
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  30-Apr-1999 (R)


  15-Jul-1999 (M)

Directed by
  David Mamet

Written by
  David Mamet
  Terence Rattigan

  Nigel Hawthorne
  Rebecca Pidgeon
  Jeremy Northam
  Gemma Jones

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