There are two, maybe three redeeming qualities of The Winslow Boy, David Mamet's newest movie. First, we have a series of marvelous desk lamps. Unfortunately, I'm not kidding. These honeys are gorgeous, set amid amber-lit interiors of wood and leather that alternately recall Merchant-Ivory and Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. The other, more deeply redemptive element is actor Jeremy Northam--who appeared as the title character's stepbrother in Emma and here plays an ace attorney. He's got an elegant, particularly cinematic type of masculinity--the kind of benevolent yang that, patented by Cary Grant, continues to fuel straight women's fantasies of the Perfect Man. Ladies would like to suck cognac from his navel and grow old with him.
The Winslow Boy is based on Terence Rattigan's popular 1946 play, which in turn is based on a true story (and was also made into a movie in 1950). The plot involves the well-to-do members of an English family, circa 1910, who fight the crown and the government when their 14-year-old son is kicked out of military school for supposedly stealing a postal order worth five shillings. The boy becomes a national cause célèbre, though MPs grouse that the case is distracting them from more important work. Led by the dignified, dissident father (Nigel Hawthorne) and suffragist daughter (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's real-life wife), the family faces the loss of its savings and reputation. The whole tsimmes raises the question: When Truth is on the line, should it matter how tiny its packaging?
The movie itself may be an unintentional answer in the affirmative, since it fails to prove that this minute plot is worthy of a full-length movie. As it is, the film feels like a typically skillful bit of Masterpiece Theatre. If it weren't for a subtle romantic subplot between the Pidgeon and Northam characters, the movie would be a washout. Pidgeon is good here, much better than when she gave that distractingly mannered turn in Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Her calm magnetic core, unblinking eyes, and inexpressive face fit here, and Mamet's notoriously stiff and precise language, for once, seems natural. No, acting isn't the problem.
Thing is, Mamet has always had a bad habit of holding back key bits of information, as well as the niceties of conversational language, in an effort to make us sit up and take notice. He hides his characters' inner lives, which leads gullible fans to believe he's really heavy, man; the implication is that these people's secrets must really be something special. The Winslow Boy is more of the same, as Mamet continually reminds the audience what a poignantly small tale this is, implying that by its very smallness it must surely be very grand (if only we had the eyes to see it). So we wait for the payoff, and are kept more or less entertained by the actors in the meantime.
But the payoff never comes, somehow, and it's hard to say why, since we're with this family for two hours--in the drawing room, the bedroom, the House of Lords, the street, the suffragette headquarters. We watch the father's limp worsen as he burns through his personal energy reserves and his savings accounts. We watch Northam's attorney begin the trial as a sharky rock-star type, and then as he reveals his deeper nature under the heat of the Pidgeon character's stare. We watch the mother (Gemma Jones) slowly lose her patience and finally beg her husband to stop his quest. Still, except for the attorney, we rarely if ever get in touch with these people--least of all the boy himself (Guy Edwards), who is ostensibly the film's central character.
This story does have the potential to provoke all sorts of insights: into British culture, the phenomenon of celebrity trials, the meaning of justice, and the old question of whether ends justify means. But it's not enough merely to allude to these questions--just as it's not enough merely to give the basic outline of a story if your goal is to convey the meaning of a story. A few extra facts might have helped. For example, in the real-life version of the story, the boy's lawyer was the same creep who prosecuted Oscar Wilde during his indecency trial. For his part, the boy eventually died in battle in World War I due to miscommunication between his battalion and HQ. Wouldn't these bits of information have added something to the story? What else is missing? one wonders.
In all fairness, it should be noted that, unlike other Mamet works, The Winslow Boy doesn't suggest contempt for the audience. This is a good-faith effort, in other words, and the auteur isn't trying to make us feel stupid. Unfortunately, though, in his infatuation with a very small story, Mamet forgot to give it any depth.