A lot of people are mystified that David Mamet chose to adapt and direct for the screen Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy (which was filmed once before, in 1948, starring Robert Donat). On the face of it, this does seem an odd choice: Rattigan, that minor master of the British “well-made play,” is not the first – or even the fiftieth – name that springs to mind in connection with the playwright who wrote American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. In theory, Anton Chekhov wouldn’t spring to mind, either, and yet Mamet has adapted or translated The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya. The question isn’t so much why Mamet would choose to adapt a project so ostensibly far from his temperament; the real head-scratcher is why, for his first film directing someone else’s material, he would give himself over to a play that is less than great – less than, say, something by Chekhov.
The answer may be that Rattigan’s play is just good enough to appeal to the Victorian gentleman lurking inside Mamet. Rattigan’s Winslow Boy has a very pleasing formality, with each character’s psychological dimensions calibrated to the millimeter. As you watch the movie, it doesn’t seem so strange anymore that Mamet decided to do it: His plays, beneath their surface unruliness, have a great formality, too. As a dramatist, he may indulge in bad manners, but they still are manners. The brittle cadences of Rattigan’s upper-crusters are continuous with the jabbing syncopations of Mamet’s lowlifes and tricksters. He’s obsessed by the ways in which speech camouflages our secret selves. For him, it’s the subtext, the pause, that resonates – even when, as in Rattigan’s play, there isn’t much inside the characters to resound.
Set in 1912, The Winslow Boy is about how a well-to-do family dedicates itself to the defense of their young and presumably innocent son (Guy Edwards) after he is expelled from the Royal Naval Academy for allegedly stealing a five-shilling postal note. Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne, who is especially fine), the ailing family patriarch, goes up against the Crown to achieve justice; he hires a famous attorney and member of Parliament, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), whose dashing conservatism both attracts and repels Winslow’s suffragette daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon).
The final verdict comes at great personal cost to the family, and yet Mamet, who streamlines Rattigan’s play and makes it less pontifical, doesn’t take the material as far as it can go; he doesn’t bring out the arrogance in Arthur’s mania. Victory here is shown to be debilitating but not all-consuming, and so we’re left with a pleasing fable about the battle of the sexes and the virtues of persistence in a just cause. The neatness of it all is both appealing and appalling, and perhaps this combo is what finally hooked Mamet.