When a young cadet is accused of theft and expelled from a government Naval Academy, one of England’s great barristers fights for his right to a fair trial. Based on a true story. [Dir: David Mamet/ Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon/ 104 min/ Drama/ Law & the Individual]
This film has much in common with the 1948 cinematic version of The Winslow Boy, as might be expected since both have roots in the Terence Rattigan play of the same name. It concerns a young cadet who is expelled from a government Naval Academy for allegedly stealing a money order. The government arbitrarily refuses to give him a trial and argues that it cannot be forced to do so because it is, by law, immune from suit. So the boy’s father hires one of England’s great barristers to fight the case through the various layers of bureaucracy, and he does—all the way into Parliament!
The 1948 telling of this story is wonderful, and this more modern version is just as good, differing with the earlier mostly as a matter of style. This version is more understated, which adds to the sense of realism but at the price of sometimes reduced dramatic effect. This shows in particular in a pivotal scene in which barrister Sir Robert Morton grills the accused naval cadet to see if he’s telling the truth about his innocence. In the earlier version, the boy is driven to tears by the searing cross-examination; in this one, he’s shaken but not stirred.
On the other hand, the romance here between Sir Robert Morton and Catherine Winslow (sister of the boy) is more credible, and Rebecca Pidgeon, in the latter role, makes a more intelligent opponent to Morton in their flirty conversational duels.
The film has a literary quality, but it’s not dry. There is much drama in the heroic behavior of those involved. This is, after all, the story of an ordinary middle-class man taking on the vast legal apparatus of the state to “let right be done” with respect to his son, and bearing a heavy price in terms of both finances and health to see it through. It’s also the story of a brilliant lawyer—an icy personification of justice and a misunderstood hero—who fights the case. It’s about family loyalty, attachment to principle, and a determination that even the most insignificant and powerless of people, in this case a teenage naval cadet, should get a fair hearing.
Libertarians will find this true story an inspiring example of ordinary people fighting for justice against an indifferent bureaucracy. The 1948 version has long been popular among Randians, and this one likely will be as well.
External Reviews of The Winslow Boy
“David Mamet’s handsome, stately adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy…works as a precisely calibrated war of nerves in which truth and deceit are all-important.”
–The New York Times
“‘If you tell me a lie, I shall know it,’ says Arthur. ‘Because a lie between you and me can’t be hidden.’ The boy looks at his father – this powerfully principled man who values his family with such regal bearing – and replies with unblinking conviction. ‘No, father. I didn’t.’ Arthur Winslow searches his son’s face. Then he makes a decision that he will never back down from. He will defend his son, Ronald Arthur Winslow, to the last. It is the beginning of a quietly riveting experience.”
–The Washington Post