Boy Wonder

The Winslow Boy
Written and directed by David Mamet

David Mamet, famous for his in-your-face characters, brutal and frequently raunchy dialogue and deliberate, staccato prose, would seem an unlikely choice to write and direct a screen adaptation of British playwright Terence Rattigan's genteel drama about injustice. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for Glengarry Glen Ross), whose body of work is actually far more varied than generally realized, does a commendable job with The Winslow Boy, bringing delicate emotion and unexpected humor to the story and eliciting superb performances from an unusually fine cast.

Set in 1910 Britain, and based on a real-life case of the day, the story concerns 13-year-old naval cadet Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards), who is expelled from school after being found guilty of stealing a 5-shilling postal order from a classmate. Convinced of his son's innocence, Arthur Winslow (the brilliant Nigel Hawthorne) dedicates himself to clearing Ronnie's name, despite the financial and psychological burdens it places on the family. When the country's leading lawyer, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam, giving an unexpectedly nuanced and utterly convincing performance), agrees to take the case, Arthur must use his daughter's dowry money and his elder son's Oxford tuition to pay the bills.

The daughter, Catherine (Mamet's wife and frequent artistic collaborator, Rebecca Pidgeon), gracefully accepts her changed circumstances, equally determined to see her brother cleared. An ardent suffragette, she initially clashes with Morton, whose conservative views offend her, but she sees that he is Ronnie's only hope. It is Grace, the children's mother (played by the wonderful British actress Gemma Jones), who suffers the most, watching wistfully as her once-tranquil middle-class life is sacrificed.

The real case aroused strong emotions across the country, much of it in favor of the boy, and provoked a media frenzy that will be all too familiar to contemporary audiences. It proved a landmark case because, up until that time, no one had been able to sue any department (such as the British Admiralty) or institution (such as the naval college in question) that was considered part of the king's domain. The British crown was deemed incapable of wrongdoing and was, therefore, immune from legal action. To file suit against the admiralty, Morton (patterned after the real-life barrister in the case, Edward Carson) would have to obtain the signature of King Edward VII on a document called a petition of right.

Best known for his spare but savage plays about amoral people (American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow) and such elaborate con-game films as The Spanish Prisoner and The House of Games, Mamet brings gentleness and what -- for him, at least -- could almost pass for warmth to The Winslow Boy. He finds low-key but credible humor in characters and situations, while infusing the overall film with a courtly, empathetic tone.

Hawthorne (The Madness of King George) and Jones (Sense and Sensibility) are always superb; the surprise here is Northam (Emma), whose inflection and manner are perfect and who somehow makes Morton both aloof and likable. It would be too strong to say that Pidgeon (The Spanish Prisoner) constitutes the weak link in the movie, but her cadence and manner of speaking retain too discernible a touch of "Mametspeak," the staccato rhythm associated with many of her husband's works. Although portraying a committed feminist and a highly intelligent individual, her character feels a trifle too modern. The performance isn't bad so much as it feels less of a piece with the rest of the actors.

Composer Alaric Jans contributes a lovely score for the film's opening and closing segments. The one weak technical credit is the audio, which is noticeably poor in sections; voices fade in and out as if not miked properly. Overall, however, this engaging film proves a total pleasure, suitable for moviegoers who like their films a bit old-fashioned but still mainstream.

Opens June 4 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Jean Oppenheimer

Contemporary Films From Vietnam

A four-film series that provides a brief but revealing glimpse of a country with which the U.S. was once intimately familiar, Contemporary Films from Vietnam serves as both refresher course and corrective, examining the nation's history and current realities from a Vietnamese rather than Western perspective. As you would expect, the protracted, divisive war and its aftermath are the primary focus -- three of the films deal with it either explicitly or obliquely -- but the series, which screens June 3-6 at Webster University, also addresses present-day concerns and helps Americans fill in the nearly 25-year gap since the U.S. withdrawal in 1975. Three of the films are reviewed below; the final movie of the series, Nguyen Khac Loi's The Retired General (Tuong ve huu) (1988), was unavailable for screening. Described as a "Bunuelian satire," the movie chronicles the uneasy adjustment to civilian life of the title character, who finds dealing with peacetime corruption in many ways more difficult than coping with wartime chaos. (CF)

Dang Nhat Minh's Hanoi: Winter 1946 (Ha Noi: Mua dong nam 1946) (1997): It's to be expected that a nation that spent nearly half of this century in a state of war should give its recent history a prominent place in its national cinema; the most unexpected thing about Hanoi: Winter 1946, the first of two films to focus directly on the war years, is how much it has in common with Western wartime dramas. This melodramatic account of the early days of the conflict, when Ho Chi Minh first began his guerrilla war against the French occupational forces, may take liberties with history, but its heavy-handed emotional content follows time-honored generic standards: Guerillas sing heroically, even in battle. Courageous young boys beg to join their older relatives on the front lines. And just as the fighting begins, one character is giving birth. Present but not always central to every major dramatic situation is Ho Chi Minh himself, a fragile yet avuncular figure (the Vietnamese even call him "Uncle") whose hagiographic depiction recalls the friendly Joe Stalin of postwar Russian films; after one attack by the French, he drops off a letter of condolence for the victims but slips away just before it's discovered, the Lone Ranger of the Vietnam War. (RH)

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