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The Winslow Boy (1999) February 26, 2005

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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David Mamet has built his reputation of Hollywood’s top script doctor thanks to his talent with words. Those words often belonged to sections of vocabulary not particularly liked by MPAA. So, it was quite a surprise to see THE WINSLOW BOY, David Mamet’s 1999 drama, receive G-rating, something that only the harmless family-friendly cartoons can expect to get these days.

The family-friendly rating can be, at least partially, explained by the film’s setting. The story brings viewer to the world where four-letter words weren’t supposed to exist – upper-to-middle class England in the beginning of 20th Century. It is Christmas 1911 and Arthur Winslow (played by Nigel Hawthorne), retired London banker, looks forward to the marriage of his daughter Catherine (played by Rebecca Pidgeon) to Captain John Waterstone (played by Aden Gillett), son of even more respected family. This bliss is shattered when Arthur’s 13-year old son Ronnie (played by Guy Edwards) returns home after being expelled from elite naval academy over alleged theft. When Ronnie says that he was wrongfully accused, Arthur sees no other alternative but to defend the honour of his family with an unprecedented action – he sues British Admiralty. Since it is almost unimaginable that a private individual could sue the state, he hires the best legal aid he could get – Sir Robert Morton (played by Jeremy Northam), member of Parliament and one of the best legal minds of the era. Catherine, left-wing suffragette, is not so enthusiastic towards Morton, who happens to be conservative opponent of women’s suffrage, but she feels attracted to his legal skills. In the meantime, the case creates media hysteria and puts the heavy toll on Winslows – they are forced to sell family assets to cover legal expenses and Captain Waterstone breaks engagement with Catherine.

THE WINSLOW BOY is based on real events that served as inspiration for 1946 stage play by Terence Rattigan and four subsequent screen adaptations. In this version Mamet clearly points to the stage origin of the film – the most important event, which has sparked the drama, happens off-screen; same goes for the entire legal procedure. The audience is therefore left only with the effects of those events on the characters. And this deprives the film of the main dramatic conflict. Winslows are portrayed as loving and functioning family – embodiment of all the social virtues of Edwardian England. Even the encroaching modernity in the form of Catherine’s feminism is harmless.

In many films this could be a major problem, but Mamet saw it as a challenge. He manages to keep the audience’s attention with excellent dialogue. He also paid great attention to period details – despite being shot in Massachussetts, THE WINSLOW BOY perfectly recreates Edwardian England. This could be attributed to Alaric Jans’ music score which sounds very much like the works of Edward Elgar. But the film’s greatest asset is acting. Dependable cast, which includes names like Sir Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam and Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon, compensates for the lack of film’s dramatic potential. THE WINSLOW BOY might be triumph of style over substance, but sometimes, like in this case, style is what separates good from bad films.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

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