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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)

Vuong Duc's The Wild Reed (Co Lau) (1993): A thoughtful contrast to the dogmatic sentimentality of Hanoi: Winter 1946 (the cerebral Thin Red Line to its Saving Private Ryan, so to speak), The Wild Reed is less concerned with creating heroes than with showing war's destructive effect on society. Set just after the war's end, the hero of The Wild Reed is assigned the thankless task of locating and identifying the bodies of soldiers killed in action, a job that eventually brings him home to his own village. In a plot twist that superficially suggests Hollywood farces like Move Over, Darling, he learns that his wife has remarried, believing him to be dead. Surprisingly, The Wild Reed is less involved in resolving that particular point than in showing a country staggering from the effects of a long war. Though the film places no ideological blame (the U.S. isn't even mentioned), itscontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pageportrait of a tragic, war-shocked nation caught in "the jungle of forgetfulness," struggling to find a new starting point, smooths over the few narrative contrivances. Whereas most war films celebrate and defend destruction, The Wild Reed shows a country in its aftermath, facing the more difficult question of living with its own history. (RH)

Vu Xuan Hung's Misfortune's End (Giai han) (1996): Replete with soaring strings, diddling spouses, destructive pride and thwarted love, Misfortune's End, with a few cultural and period tweaks, could pass for what was known in '40s and '50s Hollywood as a woman's film. Ironically titled -- a few false-hope moments to the contrary, the misfortune not only doesn't end but fatalistically compounds -- the movie features a dutiful country wife who's abandoned by an adulterous husband for a sassy, ambitious mistress in Hanoi. Add to the mix the husband's younger brother, who pines unrequitedly for his sister-in-law, and a weasely business rival, who might as well twirl his mustache as he sabotages the pair's nascent textile enterprise, and you have the makings of an old-fashioned heartstring-thrumming melodrama. Thankfully, Misfortune's End underplays the more outrageous aspects of its story, keeping a tight rein on emotions that in other hands would gallop wildly. And if you ignore the contrived foreground action, Misfortune's End offers some endlessly fascinating background in its detailing of Vietnamese rural and urban life, and its exploration of how traditional crafts and modern capitalism are intersecting. (CF)

The films in Contemporary Films from Vietnam play at 8 p.m. June 3-6 at Webster University's Winifred Moore Auditorium: Hanoi: Winter 1946 on June 3; The Wild Reed on June 4; Misfortune's End on June 5; and The Retired General on June 6.

-- Cliff Froehlich and Robert Hunt

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

In an early scene in Instinct, released by Disney's Buena Vista Pictures, we're told that a brilliant primatologist named Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins) is being brought back to the United States from Rwanda, where for several years he has been engaged in a close study of mountain gorillas. Actually, his study has gone a bit beyond close: For the past four years, Powell has done what no other scientist -- indeed, what no other man -- has ever done. (Except, of course, for Tarzan, who, quite coincidentally, is featured in another Disney picture that opens only two weeks from now.) Powell has abandoned human society to eat, sleep and live exclusively in the wild with an extended family of great apes. During this time, he has had no contact whatsoever with humankind -- not with his scientific colleagues or even his own daughter, Lyn (Maura Tierney).

As it turns out, Powell's return to civilization is not at all voluntary. While in the bush, the doctor's gorilla family is brutally attacked by a group of Rwandan rangers. Rather than allow the animals to be slaughtered, Powell springs to their defense and, in the process, kills two of the rangers. As a result, he is being returned to the States and incarcerated in a maximum-security hellhole in Harmony Bay, Fla., where he will remain until it is determined whether or not he is sane enough to stand trial.

The task of determining the state of Powell's mental health falls into the eager hands of Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a psychiatrist who sees the high-profile case as his ticket to media stardom. If he's lucky and can succeed in drawing Powell out of his silence, there may even be a bestseller in it for him.

What Theo hopes Powell will be able to tell him is difficult to express. It is the secret of the animal mind, the source of their kingly serenity. The sessions between the ambitious psychiatrist and his reluctant subject comprise the bulk of the film. At its heart, the movie is an examination of the forms and nature of power: Who has it (or think they have it) and at what price? Everywhere in the film, these power relationships are laid out. The warden, for example, has power over his guards, the guards over their prisoners, and the stronger prisoners over the weaker. As much as Theo would like to think that he holds the upper hand in his sessions with Powell, he is eventually forced to concede that any superiority is largely an illusion.

That our control over life hangs by the slenderest of threads is a dominant theme during this last decade of the millennium. But about the most that Instinct deserves credit for is making a somewhat glancing reference to the idea. It makes the illusion of sense, and nothing more.

Director Jon Turteltaub and screenwriter Gerald DiPego teamed up earlier on the equally dubious Phenomenon; what they set up here is a comparison between this "jungle" of a prison, where the strong tyrannize the weak, and the real jungles of Africa.

As the devolving primatologist, Hopkins builds his character mainly out of recycled bits from other performances, primarily The Silence of the Lambs (though his wig looks like the one Sean Connery wore in The Rock). And, in the movie's most ludicrous scene, there's even a tiny hint of Picasso as the prisoner uses chalk to sketch out the history of the world on the wall of his cell. With actors as dynamic as these two facing off against each other, it's impossible for the picture to be completely without fireworks. (Donald Sutherland also has a tiny role as Gooding's mentor psychiatrist.) But Gooding's role is too dour for him to express his lusty extroversion.

Unfortunately, fragments of earlier performances aren't the only things being recycled. Throughout the film, slaphappy parallels to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are scattered everywhere. The most tortured, however, is made at the end of the picture, when Powell coaches his cell mates into staging a diversion so that he can make his escape. I won't give away the ending, but in this evolutionary model, more than one link is still missing.

-- Hal Hinson

Written and directed by Leslie Woodhead

The peerless Ethiopian distance runner Haile Gebrselassie is a tiny man -- 5-foot-3 and barely 115 pounds -- but in his native country his heroism looms large. Since 1994 he has set 15 world records at five different distances, and at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, he outdueled a trio of favored Kenyans to win the gold medal at 10,000 meters -- a triumph regarded throughout Ethiopia as life-changing.

In an inspirational "docudrama" called Endurance, British filmmaker Leslie Woodhead tells the story -- part of it, anyway -- of how this plucky, relentless striver, the eighth of 10 children, rose from poverty and deprivation on a rural farm to become, in the estimation of Runner's World magazine, "the greatest distance runner of all time." Because mud huts don't usually come equipped with videocams, there were no home movies chronicling Gebrselassie's youth, which consisted of running six miles each way to school, hauling huge jugs of water three hours a day, plowing behind oxen, threshing wheat, and, when all that was done, putting up with the criticisms of a stern, disapproving father.

Absent original documentation, Woodhead has reconstructed this arduous childhood using nonprofessional actors, including the adult Haile's real-life nephew (Yonas Zergaw) as Haile the boy, and his sister (Shawanness Gebrselassie) as his saintly late mother. This is rarely an ideal arrangement, of course, mixing fiction and nonfiction techniques in the same movie, and Endurance can come off as aslippery, rather uneven mishmash, given its combination of new interviews, "dramaticre-enactments" and borrowed TV footage. The acting is marginal, and the poverty shown here has a processed texture that suggests weekly TV.

The things that do shine through are the timeless grace of running and the dauntless spirit of a child and man who kept going for God, family and country -- values presumably embraced with equal fervor by Walt Disney Pictures, which is distributing the film. Among the producers, by the way, we find Terrence Malick, director of The Thin Red Line and a filmmaker who obviously chooses his projects carefully.

Were the rather more privileged Olympians of Chariots of Fire still around to witness Gebrselassie's courage in the face of adversity, they might feel compelled to hand their medals over to him. But the main fault with Endurance is that it takes almost no pains to show us how Gebrselassie got to Olympic caliber in the first place. Aside from a tepid re-enactment of his first marathon, in Addis Ababa (he finished 99th!), the only race or result Woodhead shows us is the Olympic 10,000 itself -- a gorgeously sinuous stretch of footage shot not by Woodhead but by the exemplary American sports documentarian Bud Greenspan. For his purposes, Woodhead has sprinkled pieces of this climactic drama through Endurance. Otherwise, though, Gebrselassie may as well be a bolt from the blue who never broke a tape before or since.

In reality, he set records long before Atlanta, in such far-flung venues as the Netherlands, Zurich and Stuttgart. As early as 1993 he'd become an international star, and that very year the boy who grew up poor in a mud hut brought home to Africa a new Mercedes-Benz and presented it to his wife-to-be, Alem. Woodhead omits these interesting details. In the end we can only conclude that this rather listless piece of filmmaking does justice to the hardships of Haile Gebrselassie's youth but not the achievements of his career. There are some emotionally stirring moments in Endurance, but you may find yourself yearning for more of the man and his life -- not to mention the glory of his speed.

Opens June 4 at the Plaza Frontenac.
-- Bill Gallo

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