The Winslow Boy is the unexpectedly suitable marriage of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play and David Mamet’s more nettlesome tendencies as a dramatist and filmmaker. Rattigan fictionalized the 1910 trial of an English military cadet wrongfully dismissed for stealing a postal order; this tiny incident becomes an issue of national import as young Ronnie Winslow’s father, Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne), and suffragette sister, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), petition the crown to clear the boy’s name.
The Winslow Boy is a scrupulous play, but a static one: by mostly staying outside the courtroom and within the Winslow household—stoical, reticent Edwardian types all—the play is deliberately claustrophobic. And claustrophobic is this mellowing Mr. Tough Guy’s middle name—Mamet’s films create stagnant worlds seemingly inhabited only by their pertinent characters, and this irreality suits a story about people living in a bubble, obsessed with their pursuit of a small share of justice. The play’s need for secret-keeping flatters Mamet’s similar fondness for concealment: the revelation of the alleged crime is dangled too long, and even the delivery of the verdict is attenuated to frustrate dramatic payoff.
Rattigan’s mannered, unmistakably written speech is readily translatable into Mametese, in which dialogue always seems disembodied and actors affectless. Adapting The Winslow Boy to the screen allows the former potty-mouthed paranoiac to graduate to stiff-upper-lipped costume fare (rated G!) without altering his own entrenched sensibilities. Since the drama stays in the drawing room, even Mamet’s inert, point-and-shoot directing style can slide by with impunity.
Of course Mamet would feel affinity for any playwright who employs the stage direction “in a flat voice” as often as Rattigan, but still one wonders why Mamet made this unlikely choice for adaptation to the screen. Rattigan’s play suggested that the British press and judicial system will right any wrong if a citizen presents his suit with conviction, though he took care to portray the damage sustained by each Winslow as the matter dragged on: Arthur’s health deteriorates, Catherine’s marriage prospects collapse, and so on. The Winslow Boy demonstrates the simple truth that justice is often hard-won, and Mamet’s impassive interpretation of the play remains nicely ambivalent about whether the cost was too high in this case. The Winslow family’s head-strong refusal to yield, however, holds up a mirror to Mamet’s stubborn rigidity as a director. This film is solidly built, faithful to its material, and utterly lacking in pretense, but its maker is still running in place.