A Whole Family on Trial in One Mamet Chamber

David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy , from Mr. Mamet’s screenplay, based on the play by Terence Rattigan, succeeds cinematically through Mr. Mamet’s profound appreciation of his source material’s essential theatricality. The emotional resonance generated by this latest version of The Winslow Boy reminds us that film and theater have shared an incestuous relationship ever since D.W. Griffith’s earliest aspirations to become a respectable playwright rather than a disreputable moviemaker.

For a long time thereafter, “canned theater” became a term of derision for static adaptations of stage plays with endless dialogue scenes, set on divans. Many of the early talkies were particularly vulnerable to ridicule because of wordy scripts and awkward line readings. What was often overlooked was that the best plays provided more dramatic excitement and better parts for actors than the best novels. Indeed, many famous novels reached the screen only after they had been adapted into plays.

André Bazin (1918-1958), the great French film esthetician, helped change the way we look at screen adaptations of stage plays, by noting that the traditional practices of “taking the play outdoors” and “making it move” tended to reduce the intensity and focus of the drama. Jean Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles (1948), as a case in point for Bazin, became powerful cinema by retaining the claustrophobic atmosphere of the play. This, in a sense, is what Mr. Mamet has achieved with The Winslow Boy .

I have never read the Rattigan play nor seen it performed on the stage, but I do fondly remember Anthony Asquith’s 1948 film adaptation, from a screenplay by Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald, and with a cast that included Robert Donat, Margaret Leighton and Cedric Hardwicke, three glorious talents that come along once in a century. Still, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon and Nigel Hawthorne perform with a different kind of earnest effectiveness in the corresponding roles for Mr. Mamet.

Curiously, Asquith (1902-1968) was patronized by British realist film historians for squandering his undeniably tasteful gifts on making movies out of West End plays. Yet, Asquith’s version of The Winslow Boy stages lively courtroom scenes completely absent in the Mamet. It is Mr. Mamet, more than Asquith, who shifts the locus of the action from the public arena to the family domicile where private doubts and fears are confronted and resolved. The ultimate coup of both versions is the magical love story that surges in the wake of a national trial.

The play and films are set in Edwardian England just before the First World War. In real life, George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old cadet at the Isle of Wight’s Osbourne Naval College was accused of cashing a forged five-shilling postal note stolen from the locker of a fellow cadet. The boy was expelled from college despite his protestations of innocence. The boy’s father, a Liverpool bank manager, went through several trials against the Admiralty before the boy was cleared of wrongdoing.

Rattigan made several changes in the facts of the case, and the characters of the participants. The suspicions of anti-Catholic bias on the part of the Admiralty were dropped by Rattigan for fear of transforming the trial into a British Dreyfus. The dates of the expulsion and vindication were moved forward from 1908 and 1910 to 1912 and 1914. The engaged sister of the accused was changed from a proper Edwardian to a militant suffragette.

If anything, Rebecca Pidgeon’s Catherine Winslow is even more militant than the dancing-eyed Margaret Leighton’s. Many courtroom coups from the first film are rewritten as private conversations between Catherine and lawyer Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam). A once comfortable, almost complacent household is transformed by Benoît Delhomme’s restless camera and Gemma Jackson’s subdued set design into a shadowy labyrinth in which a whole family under siege tries to hold together against the pressures outside.

Mr. Mamet has chosen intimacy over spectacle in developing his drama, which is less about the trial itself and its eventual outcome, than about its understated revelations of conscience and moral fiber in his troubled characters. Nigel Hawthorne’s Arthur Winslow asks his son Ronnie (Guy Edwards) twice if he is guilty of the crime. When the son answers both times in the negative, the father, like a biblical patriarch, pledges his family’s fortunes to the awesome task of bringing suit against the King’s Admiralty. There are easier and less painful ways out of the situation, but truth, honor and right are considered eminently worth the struggle.

What struck me as strange the first time I heard of the Mamet-Rattigan enterprise was the idea of a cutting-edge modern playwright-screenwriter in the skewered Pinter mode embracing Rattigan, a playwright-screenwriter considered old hat and conformist more than 40 years ago by the Angry Young Men in power on the British stage at that time. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Mr. Mamet is, above all, a man of words precisely articulated and carefully nuanced. His modernist mask has been achieved by the patina of pessimism about the deviousness of his characters in the use of words.

Of late, he has been given too much to pretentious ellipses in his plays and movies, and I had begun to wonder if the brilliance of Glengarry Glen Ross on stage and screen almost a decade ago had not been a flash in the pan. Not to worry. Mr. Mamet has chosen wisely to sink his teeth into a richly wordy challenge to resurrect Rattigan by going against the current tide of cynicism and despair. In so doing, he has carefully allowed characters to come alive through the words they devise to express their deepest feeling through a veil of delicate obliqueness. This is especially true of the exquisite exchanges between Catherine and Sir Robert that make The Winslow Boy one of the most subtly compelling love stories of the year.

Indeed, when victory has been won, and the right upheld, the sheepish entrance of the vindicated little boy amounts almost to an anticlimax. The gently humorous exchanges between Sir Robert and the boy’s father at the moment of triumph are more the heart of the matter. It is possible also that in the linguistic counteroffensive against the cinema of mindless special effects, Mr. Mamet has decided that the talking picture and theater must join forces or perish together.

A Fine Dose Of French Canadian Irony

Robert Lepage’s Nô , from a screenplay by Mr. Lepage and André Morency, is pitched at such a high level of political and cultural sophistication with an ironically French Canadian accent that Mr. and Mrs. Popcorn will have to look elsewhere for less mind-boggling entertainment.

I have suggested in the past that Canada is not as exotic to Americans as, say, Australia. No kangaroos for one thing, and no clear-cut otherness for another-just a seemingly intransigent strangeness with a built-in Balkan-type tension. My own deep affection for Canada and the Canadians notwithstanding, I have always been very impressed and yet slightly depressed by the depth of self-deflation in the psyches of Canadian intellectuals, both Anglophone and Francophone. Too much attention is paid there to the overbearing cultural pronouncements from London, Paris and New York.

Mr. Lepage’s Nô , as a case in point, divides the action between the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan, and that same year’s October separatist crisis in Quebec. Mr. Lepage does not take either situation too seriously as he reduces cultural and political pretentions in Osaka and political pretentions in Quebec to fruitless farce. Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux) and Michel (Alexis Martin) are lovers separated by thousands of miles and 14 hours of time zones. Sophie, an actress performing in a Feydeau French farce at the Osaka Fair as a representation of Canadian culture, discovers to her horror that she is pregnant. But when she calls Michel in Quebec he is too busy with a French Canadian separatist cell to give her his undivided attention.

What follows is not without a dark, knowledgeable and occasionally hilarious humor, but too much is wrenched out of any context-except to the most inbred French Canadian-to register with a non-Canadian audience. One can tell one is looking at something serious and ambitious by the use of color film for Osaka and black and white for Quebec. At home, Mr. Lepage has reportedly caused controversy with his seemingly flippant attitude toward the strivings in Quebec for independence from the Anglophone majority.

For myself, with my limited background, I found Nô interesting but not compelling. But then I was greatly entertained by Denys Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire (1986), and that didn’t catch on with American art-house audiences, either. As always, Canada simply seems so near and yet so far.

Kate Winslet, All Grown Up

Gillies MacKinnon’s Hid- eous Kinky , from a screenplay by Billy MacKinnon, based on the novel by Esther Freud, is a movie that should be seen, though I am not entirely sure why. Much of it is horrifying in terms of a responsible mother’s duties to her daughters, but we all know from the film and the book that everyone survived the experience very little the worse for wear.

Morocco in 1972 or in any other period is a place with which I have very little patience or affinity, particularly when seen through filters of late 60′s and early 70′s hippiedom. Yet, I cannot deny that Kate Winslet has made a shrewd career move after Titanic , and has revealed a very striking grown-up talent full of physical and spiritual self-confidence. I liked also the two resilient kids played winningly by Bella Riza and Carrie Mullan.