For anyone even remotely familiar with David Mamet, the idea that he'd make a genteel English period piece like "The Winslow Boy" seems absurd. This is, after all, a playwright ("American Buffalo," "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Oleanna") whose use of the American vernacular cuts through the politesse of conventional theater like a knife. Even his strongest films ("House of Games," "The Spanish Prisoner") deal with society's fringe dwellers.
So what's he doing in Merchant-Ivory territory? Using a scalpel instead of a sword, but going for the same results.
In adapting Terence Rattigan's play -- which was based on a real incident -- Mamet brings out two concurrent themes: the pride of the upper-crust Winslow family, which prompts them to transform a private embarrassment into a public crusade; and the tenuous nature of England in 1912, with the glory of the empire behind it and the devastation of World War I ahead.
When family patriarch Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) discovers that his cherished youngest child, 14-year-old naval cadet Ronnie (Guy Edwards), has been expelled from school for stealing, he believes a grievous wrong has been committed. Demanding a public trial to clear Ronnie's sullied name, Arthur is thwarted at every turn because the Admiralty, like the Crown itself, is considered infallible and cannot be sued.
Finding a way around the entrenched protocol requires the Winslows to hire well-connected attorney Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), even if his political agenda is abhorrent to their suffragette daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon).
As the case of "the Winslow boy" goes before the House of Lords and the court of public opinion, Mamet quietly chronicles the family's sacrifices and slyly plants seeds for a blossoming attraction between the fiery but pragmatic Catherine and the calculating but impassioned Sir Robert.
The characters of Rattigan's play pride themselves on decorum and careful reserve, while Mamet's work is primarily known for its directness and emotional brutality. But "The Winslow Boy" showcases Mamet's overlooked secret weapon: a razor-sharp dramatic precision. His ability to pinpoint conflict gives him the chance to find revelation in minutiae and to dissect a human heart while it's still beating.
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