The Way of All Flesh
Terence Rattigan wrote The Winslow Boy three times--once as a proposal for a film, once as a play (when the film project was turned down) and finally as a complete screenplay (when the theatrical version scored a great hit). He did this work within a brief period; the play opened in London in 1946, and the film, directed by Anthony Asquith, was released in 1950. So it might be misleading to speak of the play's having been opened up for the movies. Rattigan may have started with an open, cinematic plan and then closed it down for the stage.
I bore you with this observation only to point out the combination of logic and perversity in David Mamet's new film of The Winslow Boy. If you compare his version with Asquith's, you will see that Mamet, like Rattigan, has closed down an existing structure--which in this case was unnecessary.
Why would Mamet have eliminated so many of the settings that Asquith used, confining most of the action within the home of the Winslow family? The answer, I suppose, is that the concentration is emotional and thematic, as much as physical.
The story, as you may know, concerns a 13-year-old boy, Ronnie Winslow, who has been dismissed from England's Naval College on the grounds that he stole a five-shilling postal order. Ronnie insists he did no such thing; his father, Arthur, a retired bank officer, believes him and presses for exoneration. Although Arthur succeeds in making his son's case a public cause, he does so at the expense of his own health, his wife's peace of mind, his family's finances and his daughter Catherine's marriage prospects. The only hope of making good on the sacrifices (including Catherine's) lies with a famous barrister and Member of Parliament, Sir Robert Morton, who takes the matter into the House of Commons.
The Asquith version contains many speeches by Sir Robert and by Arthur Winslow on the principle behind the case. It's not about a five-shilling postal order; it's about the right to a fair trial. In Mamet's version, all that stuff's been thrown out, along with the extra locales. In effect, Ronnie has turned into a 13-year-old MacGuffin, useful only for setting off the real action, which is Catherine's decision about which man to marry. To give her more of a choice, Mamet has introduced many long and meaningful glances between her and Sir Robert, right from the start.
In the roles of Sir Robert and Arthur, Jeremy Northam and Nigel Hawthorne more than live up to their predecessors, Robert Donat and Cedric Hardwicke. That's saying a lot; but I almost prefer the new performances, which allow the characters a degree more of humor and self-knowledge. But, that said, I have to add that Mamet has thrown this party for Catherine--or rather for his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays the part in orthodox Mamet style. She speaks the lines clearly.
So much for Rattigan's debates about logic versus emotion. Mamet's The Winslow Boy may be an unembarrassed exercise in sentiment, a Valentine's Day card to his wife; and yet Catherine's now as much of a stick as Sir Robert.