Today I want to talk about the quite unusual legal movie, The Winslow Boy, directed in 1999 by David Mamet and inspired by a funny and absurd true story.
It all takes place at the dawn of the 20th century when a cadet at the prestigious Royal Naval College finishes classes and begins a short holiday season.
Wanting to buy an air gun he has long wanted, he withdraws some money from his account and is about to go to the store when he is summoned to the Admiralty‘s office.
There, the officers accused him of stealing and cashing a fellow student’s postal check, immediately expelling him from the school without giving the boy a chance to explain.
He returns to his family in London, shocked by what happened and claiming to be innocent.
Believing his words unreservedly, his parents and sister decide to sue the Admiralty to drop the charges and readmit the cadet to the academy.
Admitting no wrong, the government refuses any request and even denies them any trial.
At this point, their fellow citizens begin to ostracize the family, who find it offensive to challenge the authority and honor of the Royal Navy.
Fortunately, they find unhoped-for help in the clever lawyer Sir Robert Morton, who initially appears to think the boy is a liar. However, by cleverly interrogating him, he soon believes in his absolute innocence.
Meanwhile, problems spread to the rest of the family, with the cadet’s sister who must renounce her marriage to a wealthy officer, whose father plans to strip the estate in outrage at this trial.
Even Sir Robert Morton must give up a prestigious institutional role to handle the case, continuing to fight alone against all his colleagues in court to make truth and right prevail.
An elegant and ironically romantic melodrama
David Mamet is always an unconventional author, evident in his career as a screenwriter even before he became a director.
Not surprisingly, in 1984, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, a play that would become James Foley‘s cinematic masterpiece a few years later.
In this case, he approaches a legal drama with the fast pace of a comedy and has some delightful hints of romance, though never overtly escalating into any love scene.
How the script deals with the legal subject matter is also very unusual, taking us to court only a couple of times with the lead lawyer almost always on the sidelines instead of on stage.
What is unique about Mamet‘s writing style is how he keeps a polite niceness in every dialogue, never going into shouting or over-the-top outbursts.
However, be aware of appearances because the characters are anything but polite and always make scratchy criticisms of each other in long, bitter arguments.
The camera shifts to various interiors, from the Winslow house to Sir Morton‘s law office and the courtroom where the lengthy trial is debated amid the shouts and insults of government members.
Each of these settings has a minimal and accurate elegance, from the clothes of the wealthy gentlemen to the waiters or even just the simple boy selling newspapers on the street.
Besides the unmovable and obtuse law, Mamet also explores the early moments of women’s struggle for liberation from man’s reliance, leading to the rise of the suffragette generation.
Finally, he could not miss a love letter to the cinema, with the poor Winslow boy in the ending going to see a movie at the cinematograph, the new entertainment emerging in that period and still more alive in 1999 and after.
The hard and lonely life of the just
As usual, David Mamet‘s movies stand out for his ability to exploit a highly talented cast, and 1999’s The Winslow Boy is no exception.
First, let’s talk about the Winslows’ family head, Nigel Hawthorne, an elegant English gentleman with an excellent gift for irony without ever being too serious.
In this sense, I recall his role in the hilarious Demolition Man with Sylvester Stallone, where he plays the mad despot of a wholly idiotic and absurd future dystopian society.
Here the actor is instead a late man, almost about to retire to a nursing home for the last years of his life and leave his property to his children.
The crisis and embarrassment he gets into by suing the government could ruin everything, yet he bravely holds his family together in the face of blatant injustice.
Of all of them, the daughter is the toughest and most convincing, played by a graceful Rebecca Pidgeon, an unyielding spinster and suffragette, who, despite her fierce determination, also has a romantic side we witness in her love/disdain relationship with the lawyer Sir Robert Morton.
The latter is Jeremy Northam, a versatile actor I previously applauded as the protagonist in Cypher, an intriguing 2002 cyberpunk thriller.
In this role, he is simply stunning, dominating the scene whenever he opens his mouth with a character who appears outwardly cold and aloof.
But as the beautiful Rebecca Pidgeon will discover, this lawyer also has an adventurous and romantic side, such as in the ending where they say goodbye to each other when actually they know well it is only a see you soon.
Finally, let’s remember little Guy Edwards, who steps with candid innocence into the role of Ronnie Winslow, the cadet from whom this big mess begins.