"Let Right Be Done"
When was the last time a drama carried a G-rating? The delightful melodrama, THE WINSLOW BOY, by David Mamet shows that such a movie can be very entertaining, even in the jaded 1990s. Based on a play by English playwright Terence Rattigan, this drama is based on the real-life story of a young naval cadet in 1910 England falsely accused of stealing a five shilling postal order.
The movie first introduces the Winslow family with clever foreshadowing as all of them, except the navel cadet son, return from church. The father, Arthur, played by Nigel Hawthorne, bursts through the door commending the preacher’s sermon about the seven fat years, followed by the seven lean years. The mother, Grace (Gemma Jones), and the ardent suffragette daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), complain, however, that they couldn’t hear the preacher. They think this might be a moral flaw. Not only do fat and lean years foreshadow the storyline, but the issue of listening is an undercurrent throughout this movie.
The fat years are highlighted by the family celebrating the engagement of the daughter Catherine to John Watherstone (Adden Gillet). Arthur approves the engagement to his spunky daughter after talking with John about his financial circumstances. Joining in on the celebration is Grace, Catherine’s eldest brother, Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon), and a family friend, Desmond Curry, who is also Catherine’s life-long admirer.
During the toast to the happy couple, Arthur receives notice that his youngest son, 13-year-old Ronnie (Guy Edwards), has been expelled from Osborne College for stealing the postal order and has just arrived home. Taking compassion on his son who had hid in the pouring rain in the garden for fear of his father, Arthur asks Ronnie to tell him the truth about the postal order. When Ronnie pledges his innocence, Arthur is ready to fight for his son’s cause. Desmond introduces the family to a well-known attorney, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam). Catherine is prejudiced against the handsome, intelligent Sir Robert because she thinks that he is anti-women’s rights and an egotist. Even so, there is a mutual attraction between Catherine and Sir Robert. After intensely questioning Ronnie, Sir Robert decides to take the case, and the fight begins.
Regrettably, the case seems to be stacked against Ronnie. Arthur and Catherine are humbled by the case. Sir Robert, secretly, gives up his future career to continue fighting what seems to be a lost cause. Eventually, when all seems lost, Arthur appeals to God and re-reads the Scripture about the seven fat years and the seven lean years. In Parliament, Sir Robert interrupts a speech quoting Admiral Nelson. Exhausted, he quotes the words of Jesus, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me,” as he makes the point that the powerless must be protected against the all-powerful king ( including the arrogance of the king’s admiralty! On this note, Sir Robert asks not if justice will be done, but if right will be done.
Casting is a key element in this movie as all the actors put in fine performances. Of special note are Jeremy Northam, who plays Sir Robert brilliantly, and Rebecca Pidgeon as the headstrong Catherine. Pidgeon is writer/director David Mamet’s wife and also appeared in his last film, the MOVIEGUIDE-commended THE SPANISH PRISONER, a PG-rated movie.
Quite prolific, Mamet is a playwright, essayist, novelist, screenwriter, and poet. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his profane play, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, and penned such screenplays as THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE VERDICT and the prescient WAG THE DOG. THE WINSLOW BOY is Mamet’s sixth movie as writer/director. His great attention to period detail transports the audience back in time to 1910 to experience the climate of early 20th Century society in Great Britain.
Regrettably, the editing and the sound are rough in several of the opening scenes, although Mamet builds to an extremely powerful ending. Since Mamet is such a wordsmith and revels in games and puzzles, the question arises whether Mamet intended the stylistic errors as another way to build the emotional power of his movie, just as Sir Robert in the movie uses many tricks to try to win the case. In this case, Mamet may have tried to make too fine a point with his subtle direction and dialogue.
THE WINSLOW BOY is a movie that the whole family can see. It captures the period flavor and depicts the financial circumstances that the institution of marriage carried back then. It shows the respect that parents received from their children. It also portrays the father as the caring head of the family.
The contrast between Arthur and his suffragette daughter is interesting. As in many depictions of suffragettes, smoking is an important part of the daughter’s independent character. In the end, Sir Robert causes Catherine to question her suffragette views.
This movie brings up several issues of justice. At one point, the mother, Grace, questions her husband as to whether he is seeking justice or upholding his pride and self-importance. Another question that arises is how much must one sacrifice for “right to be done.” During the movie, Arthur’s health deteriorates, the family’s home is disrupted with all the publicity, and Catherine’s engagement with John is broken. Was the pursuit of justice and truth worth the cost? Since the pivotal argument in the movie quotes Jesus, is it possible that the story is saying that one has to give up everything before one can turn to the only One who can win the case and cause right to be done?
The movie stimulates much thinking on these issues, leaving them open for the audience to ponder. THE WINSLOW BOY is a worthwhile dramatic experience, which may require several viewings. David Mamet should be commended for making this movie accessible to everyone with a G-rating — a brave move indeed.
(CC, B, H, L, D, FE, M) Strong Christian worldview of justice where the pivotal argument winning the Winslow case (that the powerless must be protected against the powerful king) is summed up in Jesus' statement "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me," with some humanist & moral elements; 1 obscenity & two appeals to God; no violence; no sex; no nudity; smoking; and, issues of women's suffrage in the early 1900s.