“Let right be done” is the phrase that most simply sums up this story. Insisting that right be done and the costs that are often associated with pursuing such a quest are also the central themes of this superb David Mamet film, based on the outstanding Terence Rattigan play. With a screenplay written and directed by Mamet and excellent portrayals by all the actors, this production of Rattigan’s story shines out with timeless truths set in a not long bygone era.
The movie begins with the Winslow family arriving home after church. They are discussing a sermon which was based on the Old Testament story of Pharaoh’s dream about seven fat and seven lean cows. Their own “fat years” have treated the Winslows well as can be seen by the modestly elegant style in which they live. The stage is set for their testing with the coming of the “lean years.” The movie tells of the family’s trials pursuing justice for their smallest member, Ronnie: the Winslow boy (Guy Edwards), who is accused by the Royal Naval Academy of stealing a five shilling postal order. The father, Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne), questions Ronnie and after the boy denies the charge takes on the British Admiralty and ultimately the Crown in his efforts to prevent injustice being done to his youngest son. Ronnie’s sister, Catherine ‘Kate’ Winslow (Rebecca Pidgeon), a campaigner for women’s suffrage, also picks up the quest for justice as her own battle.
The characterization of Winslow family members, indeed of all the movie’s characters, is careful and measured showing them in their daily lives, many aspects of which are put under extreme strain by their battle with the British establishment. Arthur Winslow is a fine example of a family patriarch, a role not often given favor in recent movies. In many ways the Winslows are depicted as very English, but more to the essence, they usually epitomize the best elements of what are often referred to as “middle class values.”
With the determination of the Winslows, the carefully plotted events all lead inexorably to a higher level of confrontation with the Crown of England. As neither Arthur nor Kate is a lawyer they need an attorney to champion their cause. Arthur wants Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam, Emma) to take the case. For political reasons, Kate does not believe Morton to be the right man. Throughout the film Sir Robert and Kate’s relationship is ripe with the potential for political disagreement, but also has an undertone of romantic tension. After an intense interview with Ronnie and his family, Sir Robert takes the case and the foundation is laid for the battle between Leviathan (a quaintly English version) and the champions of the presumed innocent.
The Winslow Boy was also made into a movie in 1948. That earlier version starred Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton and Cedric Hardwicke as Arthur Winslow. Although I have yet to see it, that film has its partisans too. Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon, Nigel Hawthorne and David Mamet (Pidgeon’s husband) all excel in the newer film which is truly heroic in its themes of questing for justice against a complacent system and established power, as well as its high valuation put on the state’s greatest institutional foe: the family. Another “hero” of this film is the Winslows' way of life itself. Their values and way of living has become rarer and faded in popularity in our era. While the “villain” of the film, the presumptive State and the complacency or duplicity of people who should know better, has come to overshadow many aspects of most of our lives.
Late in the film Arthur Winslow is reading the passage in his bible about Pharaoh’s dream and one can see the cost which the “lean years” have exacted on him. At the beginning of the film he was middle aged, toward the end he is old and must use two canes to walk. The modest elegance of the Winslow house has become threadbare. One can see where pictures had once hung on the walls. They have likely been sold to “let right be done.” This movie is finely crafted in so many ways that it really can’t be easily summed up in a few words and I haven’t even mentioned the very fine soundtrack or careful use of color in the sets. This version of The Winslow Boy and Strictly Ballroom were the first two DVDs which I purchased. The DVD contains all the usual things, commentary and trailers etc., but also has a fine “Making of” feature too. The Winslow Boy is one of my favorite films.