...shining light on the media, one review at a time
In the fickle, popularity contest world of cinema, accolades are sometimes lavished on films that don’t deserve the attention. At other times, the opposite is true, and a movie that merits critical acclaim and blockbuster success slips by nearly undetected by the public and gets lost in the bottom of used video sale bins—buried under other unknowns. With artistic beauty, a powerful story, brilliant acting, and positive messages on truth, justice, family, and honor, The Winslow Boy is one such hidden treasure that offers ample reward for anyone who seeks it out.
The year is 1911, and the Winslow family is enjoying a pleasantly eventful day in their London home, as they are about to mark the engagement of Catherine, the eldest child and only daughter of Arthur and Grace Winslow. The Winslows are blissfully unaware that their lives are about to be irrevocably changed with the unexpected arrival of the youngest son, Ronnie.
The boy of thirteen materializes with a letter from his school, the Royal Navel College, informing his parents that Ronnie has been expelled for stealing. After interrogating Ronnie and securing the boy’s word that he is innocent, Arthur launches a campaign to refute the charges and clear his son’s name. Arthur, we quickly learn, is not a man to stand for a wrong being done to his family.
Thus, the abundance of positive messages in this film are evident in some of its earliest moments, as we witness the close relationships Arthur and Grace have with their children, as well as the rare trust and honesty that exists between Arthur and his youngest son. This is a family in which the father is a stalwart and compassionate leader. At his signal, the Winslows band together to support both Ronnie and Arthur’s quest to prove the young boy’s innocence.
Catherine, in particular, dedicates her time and considerable intelligence to helping her father win the case. Her support is unending, even when she believes her father is wrong in some of his choices. When the Winslows’ appeal is rejected by the military court, Arthur decides to pursue obtaining the legal representation of Sir Robert Morton, a well-known, highly successful barrister and Member of Parliament. Catherine agrees with Arthur’s idea to take their case to Parliament, but opposes his choice of Sir Robert Morton, whom she believes is a heartless, political ladder-climber and publicity seeker who would never be interested in their unprofitable little case. Catherine, however, is one of several characters who learns she can be mistaken and grows from her encounters with Morton, as he learns and grows from meeting her.
All of the characters are changed and challenged beyond their expectations as the “Winslow Boy” case drags on, garnering much publicity as it continues. Along with the public attention come hardships that Arthur never anticipated. Financial and emotional strains begin to take a toll even on those less involved with the case, including the eldest son, Dickie, and Arthur’s wife, Grace, testing the limits of their devotion to Arthur. Yet at every turn, no matter how devastating the consequences become, the Winslows set a high standard for familial support and commitment to what they believe is right.
Catherine is hit with one of the harshest and most personal consequences, but, unceasingly exhibiting the strength that is the pillar for her father to lean on throughout this battle, she sacrifices her own comfort and desires for her family, without sparing even a moment for self-pity. Catherine exemplifies a willingness to fight relentlessly for what is right, no matter what the cost.
Such determination seems to be the pattern of Catherine’s life, as she had long previously been a suffragette, involved in the cause of gaining women the right to vote. Again, her motives in this quest are admirable, as she is striving for equality and liberty, not the diminishing of men. Catherine is not afraid of her femininity and clearly respects, as well as values, the men in her life, using her keen mind to fight for them and others who need help.
The effort, then, to see that right conquers wrong is at the center of the Winslows’ lives. And “right,” Sir Robert points out, is the goal in the Winslow case. One of the thematic explorations of this film thus becomes the fleshing out of the difference between “right” and simple legal justice. “Easy to do justice,” Sir Robert says, “difficult to do right.” There is a good deal of evidence to condemn Ronnie Winslow, but Sir Robert and the Winslows are concerned with seeing that right is done, as they know he was falsely accused.
The Winslow Boy’s uplifting messages concerning right, truth, sacrifice, family, honor, and the like are enhanced by the artistic production quality that is also immediately and continuously evident throughout the film. Director David Mamet is known for his artistic skill, and he does not disappoint in the telling of this story, which he personally adapted into the screenplay for the film. His critically admired trademarks are present at every turn, including the masterfully told story. The plot itself is not complex, yet Mamet’s storytelling skill enables him to take that simplicity and use it to touch and inspire viewers like few tales can. Another Mamet hallmark used to advantage in The Winslow Boy, is the standout dialogue, which is at once startlingly realistic and arrestingly poetic, with a cadence that enables characters to speak a great deal, yet leave viewers wanting more.
The actors cast in this film were perfect choices to take advantage of the Mamet style, as the lead roles are played by highly skilled and standout actors of their generations. Nigel Hawthorne as Arthur so fully incarnates the complicated nuances of his character—the stubborn determination, sharp intelligence, unrelenting leadership, as well as the compassion, love, and doubt—that viewers, like the other characters, are compelled to admire and cheer for this man who is ready to give up everything for the good of his son. Playing his wife, Grace, Gemma Jones compliments Hawthorne well, and their many years of experience and deftness are enjoyably apparent when they are on screen.
Despite the magnificence of the older actors’ performances, especially that of Hawthorne, the younger actors threaten to steal the show. Rebecca Pidgeon, is dead-on in her performance as Catherine, bringing vitality and authenticity to this large, central role. Like the other actors in The Winslow Boy, Pidgeon seems to have no trouble playing the time period, and she breathes the poetic dialogue more naturally than anyone. Pidgeon seems made for the demanding role of Catherine, embodying the character’s strength, wit, and independence with a charm that leaves little wonder how she unintentionally earns the admiration of everyone around her.
In another stroke of good casting, Jeremy Northam as Sir Robert brings an intensity and palpable emotion to each of his scenes, drawing viewers with his magnetic screen-presence. Thanks to Northam’s infinitely readable and vivid performance, as well as the artfully written story, The Winslow Boy offers an unexpected surprise—a subtly powerful romance that buds as a subplot but blossoms into some of the film’s most memorable moments.
The few blemishes amid all these positives include the casual, commonly accepted misuse of God’s name, “Oh, L---.” Unfortunately, the actors toss out this profanity several times throughout the film, sullying what otherwise would be a nearly perfect showing in terms of clean content. The other area of concern is frequent cigarette smoking. While the smoking is handled in a manner that is accurate to the time period, young viewers could be misguided by some of the central characters’ appearance of condoning the practice.
Even so, The Winslow Boy offers discerning viewers a rare chance to watch a film that is at once morally uplifting, artistically impressive, and entertaining for the whole family. And with a host of complex characters and intellectually challenging content, The Winslow Boy won’t let viewers watch mindlessly, instead making one think and feel with a rich artistry not soon forgotten.
So go ahead and dig into that “unknown” video bin, or find The Winslow Boy wherever great videos are sold. This is one overlooked gem that will definitely make it worth your while.
Check out these similar titles:
Amazing Grace (Walden Media, 2006)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal International Pictures, 1962)
One Against the Wind (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1991)