OK, let's just get this part out of the way right now:Who'd have imagined David Mamet -- that controversial master of brash,profanity-laced male head-butting -- could (or would even want to) directa G-rated masterpiece about the prim and proper society folk of EdwardianEngland?
Best known for his dialogue-driven, testosterone-saturatedstage plays ("Glengarry Glen Ross") and screenplays ("TheEdge"), Mamet seems the most unlikely directorfor a project such as "The Winslow Boy," a deceptively simpledrawing room drama about a family defending its sacred honor to the financial,emotional and medical detriment of its members.
The film is adapted from Terrence Rattigan's 1946 play-- loosely based on real events -- about the pursuit of justice for anupper-crust 13-year-old boy kicked out of a prestigious private schoolfor stealing a five schilling postal order.
His father, played by the incomparable Nigel Hawthorne,asks him, "Did you do it?" The boy says no, and Hawthorne becomeshell-bent on clearing his name, becoming ill from stress and near-brokein the process.
He pulls his elder, lackadaisical son from Oxford so hecan afford to hire Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), the country's mostfamous lawyer, to defend his son in a court battle that soon becomes thetalk of London.
Mamet inspires at least one career-best performance (Northam's)with his eye for emotional sincerity (even within the confines of the shuttered,proper English facade) and his ear for riveting, measured dialogue. Nota single word passes without meaning in Mamet's structured adaptation.
Northam ("Emma") is astounding as Morton -- powerful, composed and intelligent. The SherlockHolmes of solicitors, he plays the part as perceptive and wonderfully spiritedwhile entirely proper and seemingly passionless, yet highly principled-- he turns down a prestigious government position to continue the case.
Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's real-life wife) plays the boy'ssuffragette sister, whose feckless fiance skedaddles when the case becomesa scandal. Subsequently, a strong sexual tension forms between herselfand the lawyer as they butt heads in polite but ardent and passionate debateson women's rights.
Mamet's film opens up the action, which in the play takesplace entirely within the Winslow's drawing room, but he did not re-writeit to include courtroom scenes. He depends on the brilliantly vivid andintricate recounting of courtroom observers (the sister mostly) to tellthe story of the trial, while the focus stays on its effects on the familythrough their conscious and unconscious reactions.
He also leaves the boy's actual innocence indirectly inquestion, as the father continues the fight even though his son is doingfine at a new school and life would quickly return to normal if he wouldjust drop it.
Although Mamet has directed highly-praised films before(notably, last year's "The Spanish Prisoner"), "The WinslowBoy" is his best film venture to date. His grasp of the social climateof the Edwardian world of walking sticks and waist coats, bustles and bonnetsis absorbing in its detail. His photography is lush and perceptive as well.But above all, the film is emotionally candid and truthful even while thecharacters preserve the polite, corseted restraint of their culture.