The case against `Winslow Boy'

Review: Mamet's wan little film dilutes the charm, power of the play.

June 04, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

What's all the fuss about "The Winslow Boy?" The movie has charmed audiences and most critics since it started its theatrical tour last month, but this viewer was unmoved. Starchy, supercilious, fairly pecked to death by a so many stiff upper lips, "The Winslow Boy" seems notable only for the frisson of the expletive-prone David Mamet directing a G-rated movie.

Actually, it's not difficult to see what drew Mamet to "The Winslow Boy," a 1946 play by Terence Rattigan that was adapted for the screen by Anthony Asquith in 1950. With its attention to the manners, ritualized speech and sub-rosa emotions of the British upper class in Edwardian London, "The Winslow Boy" possesses all the formal elements that grace Mamet's most famous plays and movies (most recently "The Spanish Prisoner"). But in this case, Mamet fails to go beyond the surface of the world he so painstakingly renders, resulting in a weirdly sterile and unaffecting intellectual exercise.

"The Winslow Boy" is based on the real-life story of George Archer-Shee, who was a 13-year-old cadet at a British military college when he was accused in 1908 of stealing a five-shilling postal note. His father, believing his son's innocence, hired England's most famous lawyer to convince Parliament to allow the family to press its case against the British crown (the school was considered part of the king's domain), and soon the case became a cause celebre throughout England, inspiring editorial cartoons, souvenirs and other accoutrements of the media field day.

Rattigan's play, which was set in the Winslow family parlor, avoided the predictable melodrama of the courtroom case and focused on the family, and the high price it paid for fighting the good fight.

Mamet has approached "The Winslow Boy" with great respect, mounting a handsome production whose palette and staging recall the paintings of John Singer Sargent. And he has enlisted some able players in his enterprise, chiefly Nigel Hawthorne as the Winslow patriarch and Guy

Edwards, who is quite good as Ronnie Winslow (the George Archer-Shee character), a fey young boy who seems blithely clueless as to the stakes of the war being waged on his behalf. Jeremy Northam, who plays Sir Robert Morton, the family's lawyer, provides the only spark of life in an otherwise stagey production (watch his expression when Ronnie's sister tells him she's a suffragist).

But for all his care in bringing this highly regarded play to the screen, Mamet may have committed two major blunders: First, he has opened up the action a bit, allowing those pent-up Winslow emotions to seep away into the outside world. And he has beefed up the role of Catherine Winslow, Ronnie's feminist sister, played here by Rebecca Pidgeon in a weirdly distant performance that somehow manages to be affectless and self-important simultaneously (much like the one she delivered in "The Spanish Prisoner"). A bitter sea must roil underneath that veneer of studied equipoise, but the audience certainly never catches a glimpse of it.

By the end of "The Winslow Boy," we are meant to think that the family has undergone a seismic shift because of Ronnie's case, but from here the costs seem almost negligible: a few sold paintings, an extra cane for Winslow pere, a questionable marriage canceled and an intriguing romance sparked. The case reaches its outcome, and that's that. You can almost hear the tea service being readied for yet another quiet evening at home (the maid was never let go, thank God).

Presumably Mamet, never one to coddle an audience, wants filmgoers to fill in the emotional blanks for themselves, a laudable endeavor in most cases. But here his detachment results in an odd sort of apathy. The parallels to current Clintonian events are briefly diverting, and the prim atmosphere of Edwardian London is neatly reproduced, but in the end, "The Winslow Boy" is a bloodless little fellow indeed.

Top 10 films

The top films at the box office over the Memorial Day weekend, with distributor, weekend gross, total gross, number of weeks in release:

1 "Phantom Menace" 20th Cent. Fox $66.9 million $207.1 million 2

2 "Notting Hill" Universal $27.7 million $27.7 million 1

3 "The Mummy" Universal $12.9 million $117.2 million 4

4 "Entrapment" 20th Cent. Fox $7.2 million $69.6 million 5

5 "13th Floor" Sony $4.3 million $4.3 million 1

6 "The Matrix" Warner Bros. $3.8 million $154.8 million 9

7 "Midsummer ... Dream" Fox $2.1 million $11.4 million 3

8 "Never Been Kissed" Fox $2.0 million $49.0 million 8

9 "Black Mask" Artisan $1.6 million $9.5 million 3

10 "The Love Letter" DreamWorks $1.4 million $5.1 million 2

`The Winslow Boy'

Starring Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam

Directed by David Mamet

Rated G

Running time: 110 minutes

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Sun score: * * 1/2

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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