The Winslow Boy

USA 1998

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

London, 1912. Arthur Winslow's daughter Catherine, an ardent suffragette, becomes engaged to a young soldier, John Watherstone. The family celebrate. Arthur discovers his youngest son Ronnie is back home early from naval college. Ronnie is carrying a letter which explains he has been expelled for stealing a postal order. Arthur asks him if he is guilty, and Ronnie insists he is not. Arthur resolves to fight to clear Ronnie's name.

Many months pass. An independent inquiry is called but Ronnie is not represented and is again found guilty. The family suffer financially. Arthur's health is broken. His oldest son Dickie is forced to leave university without completing his studies. Arthur hires brilliant attorney and politician Sir Robert Morton to represent Ronnie. After prolonged debate in the House of Lords, Sir Robert succeeds in bringing the case to court. Catherine, initially suspicious of Sir Robert, learns that he has made his own sacrifices to prove Ronnie's innocence. Embarrassed about the publicity the Winslow case is generating and aware that Arthur can no longer provide a dowry, John breaks off his engagement to Catherine. Arthur learns that the case is won. Sir Robert drops by to offer his congratulations. Catherine shows him out of the house.


When Mike Figgis adapted The Browning Version in 1994 he updated Terence Rattigan's original play to the present. David Mamet resists such tampering in his surprisingly faithful adaptation of Rattigan's The Winslow Boy (first filmed by Anthony Asquith in 1948). The drama remains firmly rooted in the Edwardian era. Apart from a few outside excursions, we rarely venture from the Winslows' home. At times the domesticity can become claustrophobic. Characters are invariably shot in medium close-up and Mamet doesn't skimp on the period detail. Everything - from little Ronnie's naval-cadet costume and Arthur's whiskers to Catherine's starched blouses and the dark, heavy furnishings which (along with Benoît Delhomme's cinematography) make the Winslow drawing room seem so sombre - is as fussily rendered as in any Merchant-Ivory E. M. Forster adaptation.

Given the multiple deceptions of Mamet's last film The Spanish Prisoner, audiences are likely to approach The Winslow Boy with suspicion. Early on, the very air of normality in the Winslow household puts us on our guard. With its euphemisms, irony and understatement, the language used by the family and their associates isn't so far removed from the sly vernacular found in Mamet's own work. There are even moments when the characters echo one another's sentences, Mamet-style. ("You don't behave as if you were in love," the mother Grace tells her daughter Catherine. "How does one behave as if one is in love?" she replies.) Rebecca Pidgeon plays Catherine in precisely the same coquettish way as she did the siren who led Campbell Scott astray in The Spanish Prisoner. We wonder when Mamet will pull the carpet from beneath us, but there is no sinister subtext here. Mamet, who describes The Winslow Boy as "one of the most immaculately crafted plays I've read," was loath to tinker with its structure. He has edited, compressed, and even written new speeches for some characters, but they're barely detectable.

The pleasures of his version of The Winslow Boy are predictable ones. This is a consummately crafted costume drama galvanised by a handful of excellent, if very stagy, performances. Nigel Hawthorne's Arthur starts off as a robust Edwardian patriarch, but as the film progresses his beard whitens and his health deteriorates. Hawthorne brings an unlikely tragic grandeur to the character, conveying in scowls and mutters Arthur's extreme stubbornness as well as his uncertainty.

The fact that neither he nor anybody else betrays any emotion serves, if anything, to heighten the pathos. The characters all speak in coded language and treat one another with exaggerated courtesy. Sir Robert seems incapable of expressing his interest in Catherine in any other way than by paying her anodyne compliments about her hat. The solicitor Desmond proposes to her as if he's a bailiff delivering a summons. For all their polish and wit, both come across as forlorn and lonely figures.

Mamet claims that the themes of The Winslow Boy are universal, but he seems as fascinated by the nuances of English society as by any abstract ideas about justice, rights and victimhood Rattigan's text may illustrate. The drama is set at a very specific moment - on the eve of World War I. As Mamet clearly realised, if he had taken away the historical context his film would have lost the sense of time and place which make the original play so distinct.


Sarah Green
David Mamet
Based on the play by
Terence Rattigan
Director of Photography
Benoît Delhomme
Barbara Tulliver
Production Designer
Gemma Jackson
Alaric Jans
©The Winslow Partnership, L.L.C.
Production Company
Sony Pictures Classics presents a David Mamet film
Line Producer
Sally French
Production Co-ordinator
Winnie Wishart
Unit Manager
Michael Casey
Location Manager
Amanda Stevens
Martha Griffin
Jeff Robinson
Assistant Directors
Richard Hewitt
Toby Sherborne
Philip Booth
Script Supervisor
Annie Wotton
Ros Hubbard
John Hubbard
Graphic Artist
Jim Stanes
Art Director
Andrew Munro
Set Decorator
Trisha Edwards
Costume Designer
Consolata Boyle
Wardrobe Supervisor
Sue Wayne
Make-up/Hair Design
Peter Robb-King
Make-up Artist
Maureen McGill
Key Hairdresser
Annie Townsend
Title Design
The Effects House
Music Conductor
Sunnie Hikawa
Music Editor
David Carbonara
Score Recordist/Mixer
Alan Silverman
Production Sound Mixer
Clive Winter
Re-recording Mixers
Michael Barry
Maurice Schell
Supervising Sound Editor
Maurice Schell
Sound Editors
Laura Civiello
Richard Cirincione
Eytan Mirsky
Jane McCulley
Brian Vancho
George Lara
Stuart Stanley
Military Adviser/Liaison
Captain Rupert Phelps
Debbie Kaye
Nigel Hawthorne
Arthur Winslow
Jeremy Northam
Sir Robert Morton
Rebecca Pidgeon
Catherine Winslow
Gemma Jones
Grace Winslow
Matthew Pidgeon
Dickie Winslow
Lana Bilzerian
Sarah Flind
Aden Gillett
John Watherstone
Guy Edwards
Ronnie Winslow
Colin Stinton
Desmond Curry
Eve Bland
Sara Stewart
Miss Barnes
Perry Fenwick
Alan Polonsky
Mr Michaels
Neil North
First Lord of the Admiralty
Chris Porter
Jim Dunk
Duncan Gould
Commons reporter
Ian Soundy
local reporter
Columbia Tristar Films (UK)
9, 396 feet
104 minutes 24 seconds
Dolby digital
Colour by
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011