David Mamet: The Spanish Prisoner and
The Winslow Boy: Two Screenplays
....The Winslow Boy may as well have Oscars emblazoned on its celluloid. Without question the best English language film of 1999 to date, it is the one to beat, and it stands as an instant classic. Never before have we heard an audience of critics, those jaded and "show me" journalists, burst into applause at the end of a film. And that, too, a film with an exchange about talking to the press:
"What shall I say to them?"
"Whatever you say will have little bearing on what they write."
David Mamet has taken a fresh look at Terence Rattigan’s stage play based on a true incident that occurred in 1908. A 13 year old student was accused of a petty theft and expelled from school, despite his protests of innocence. The boy’s father believed an injustice to be done and sought legal recourse in a case that drew national attention. (Rattigan’s play was made into a film in the late 1940s with an all star cast including Robert Donat, Cedric Hardwicke, and Margaret Leighton.)
Any story based on righting a wrong, seeking fairness in an unfair world, already has a certain edge in gaining an audience’s sympathy. Compound that basic premise with the plot line of an ordinary citizen going up against the intransigence of a self-protective establishment in a stratified, hierarchical society still bound up in nineteenth century mores. Then add intelligent characters, fully rounded characterizations, and a first rate group of actors playing with subtlety and charm. Throw in a Prince Charming for whom we can root to be won over by our delightfully independent heroine. It all adds up to one terrific movie.
But it doesn’t stop there, because Mamet is a man of ideas, not formulas. His story reflects its period, a time when values and social structure were changing rapidly, even before the acceleration of change that was catalyzed by World War I. At its center, the boy’s father is very much the ruler of his family roost, stern, but imbued with a sense of fairness that motivates him to fight a costly and draining battle on behalf of his young son. Nigel Hawthorne’s performance in this role is brilliant, the articulation of his lines as one with the expressiveness of his demeanor. You know he means it when he says, "A gramophone is out of place in a civilized home!" You marvel with him at the vacuity of a newspaper reporter whose main concern for her story is the fabric from which the draperies are made. While he plays the formality and surface brusqueness of the patriarch, the underlying gentleness and love for his family shines through.
His daughter and ally in the battle is a Suffragette, an agent of social change. When she goes to Parliament to observe her brother’s case being debated, she must sit in a separate women’s gallery. Rebecca Pidgeon is convincing, in her zeal both for legal justice for her brother and social justice in a male dominated society. Her vulnerability to the standards for women of her class and time is expressed in her concern for her unmarried state as she approaches 30, her deteriorating relationship with her tradition-bound fiance, and her willingness to seriously consider the suit of his rival, the bumbling family lawyer.
Gemma Jones as the patient mother who wonders if her husband so doggedly pursues the case for justice or for pride, Jeremy Northam as the legal and romantic white knight, and Guy Edwards as the Winslow boy are all just right in their roles. Mamet’s script is wonderfully lean and clear, with the occasional Mametisms to remind us who our writer is: "Of course not. Of course not. Of course it is not a little case, nothing of the sort."
The film has a dark visual palette, almost entirely interior settings, and a hauntingly lovely musical score that underlines without being intrusive.
It is a remarkable accomplishment to bring a film like this to the theaters, a film that can proclaim without seeming mawkish, "You shall not side with the great against the powerless" and "It is easy to do justice. It is very hard to do right." In a market that largely seems to prefer sci fi thrillers and gross out comedies, what a joy to have a civilized film about people and ideas that is rooted in another time, yet seems utterly relevant for right now.