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Mamet Stays Faithful to Still-Topical 'Winslow Boy'

In his unexpected G-rated adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, the writer-director preserves the original's dramatic tension.


David Mamet has raised profanity to an art form in many of his plays, but don't think his tastes are profane. Mamet did the adaptation of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" that ended up as "Vanya on 42nd Street," and, says his wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon, he's fond of playing Victorian songs on the piano. So there.

Still, it's a bit of a surprise to find that Mamet's sixth film as a director, "The Winslow Boy," is a remarkably faithful adaptation of a half-century-old theatrical warhorse by Terence Rattigan ("The Browning Version"), the master of the well-made British play. Set in England just before the Great War, when men still dressed for dinner and grumbled about old cricket injuries, it's an unlooked-for venture into Merchant Ivory country for Mamet, but not any less welcome for that.

While the writer-director must have been bemused at being associated with a G-rated venture in which "what utter rot" is the strongest imprecation going, Mamet has not taken "The Winslow Boy" on because of some misguided reverence for the theatrical past.

Rather Mamet has recognized the dramatic tension still inherent in the original. And, though it was previously filmed more than 50 years ago, he's seen how relevant to the issues of the day the play's managed to remain. For "The Winslow Boy," a pointed examination of the price of seeking justice, also deals with concepts like the power of the media and private rights versus the public good and raises issues whose echoes are as up-to-the-minute as the impeachment imbroglio.

The Winslow family seems the unlikeliest incubator for such a fuss in 1912's England. Father Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne) is a banker so proper he grouses at older son Dickie (Matthew Pidgeon, Rebecca's brother), a wastrel-in-training at Oxford, that a gramophone is out of place in a civilized home.

Most of the obvious spunk in the family resides in daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon). Though the piece opens with her about to be officially engaged to military man John Watherstone (Aden Gillett), Catherine is a committed suffragist and is sympathetic to trade-union radicals as well.

Fourteen-year-old Ronnie (Guy Edwards) is nominally away at school, but he shows up unexpectedly with a letter announcing he's been summarily dismissed from the Royal Naval College at Osborne, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. After a stern examination ("If you tell me a lie, I shall know it, because a lie between you and me can't be hidden"), Arthur accepts his son's protestations of innocence and embarks on a campaign to get him a proper trial.

Because of the complexities of British law and tradition, this is a tricky business to pull off, and Arthur, in addition to using the media to further his cause, asks family lawyer Desmond Curry (Colin Stinton) for help in seeking the services of Britain's top solicitor, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam).

A model of icy decorum, Sir Robert is suavity itself, but Catherine thinks he is too heartless for a case like this. Catherine is also disturbed by Sir Robert's establishment views: "He always speaks out against what is right," she says, not a little angry.

One of the main thrusts of "The Winslow Boy" is the terrible human costs of this attempt to do the right thing, the life-changing stresses borne by wife and mother Grace (Gemma Jones) and by each member of the family. When Arthur asks his daughter at one point, "Kate, are we both mad, you and I?," it's a much more difficult question to answer than anyone anticipated.

Playwright Rattigan based "The Winslow Boy" on a celebrated real case, though he moved the date up from 1912 to put his story under the shadow of World War I, and he made the family's conservative older sister into a suffragist. As for the changes Mamet made in Rattigan's work, they are surprisingly few, the main one being the expected one of opening the play from its exclusive setting in the Winslows' Kensington drawing room.

Quite a precise writer on his own turf, Mamet has warmed to that aspect of Rattigan and gotten consistently good performances from his well-cast actors. Hawthorne, Oscar-nominated for his role in "The Madness of King George," brings a humanity and a caring to his role that "Winslow" would be lost without. The theater-trained Northam is ideal as the exacting Sir Robert, and Rebecca Pidgeon deftly handles the slight hint of a flirtation between her and the solicitor that the play doesn't have.

Genteel moviemaking with modern overtones, "The Winslow Boy" is especially good at the visual re-creation of its time. Production designer Gemma Jackson and Mamet clearly had a great deal of fun creating so many Winslow-mania objects, from pins to umbrellas to political cartoons, that the case seems as real, and as much of a public furor, as the O.J. Simpson trial.

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