The Winslow Boy Review

The Film

Since the 1950s, Terence Rattigan, the playwright on whose work this is based, has had something of a critical slump; this is partly because of the rise of John Osborne and the other 'Angry Young Men', and partly because much of his work simply wasn't very good, with such plays as Separate Tables and Deep Blue Sea (the latter being nothing to do with Renny Harlin's film, perhaps disappointing a couple of blue-rinse old ladies somewhere out there) feeling little more than watered-down imitations of Eugene O'Neill and Noel Coward. The Winslow Boy, however, has stood the test of time far better, coupling its (real-life) gripping storyline with intelligent swipes at the class system and the nature of personal integrity; Mamet's film respects these, rather than adding to them unnecessarily, but also manages to slyly build on his interest in gamesmanship and deception, while still using Rattigan's play.

The plot is, as mentioned before, entirely based on fact. Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards),a young navel cadet, is accused of stealing a postal order. His father (Hawthorne), mother (Jones), and suffragette sister Catherine (Pidgeon) are all convinced of his innocence, along with brilliant barrister Sir Robert Morton (Northam), and begin the long and arduous journey towards clearing their son's name, sacrificing all that they have built up in their successfully middle-class lives. The question that the film ultimately asks, in a suitably ambiguous fashion, is whether there is an upper limit on one's good name.

Mamet's recent films have been consistently intelligent, well made, fairly mainstream examples of good filmmaking, and this is perhaps the best of them, an almost textbook lesson in how to successfully adapt a play. Although fans of his tough, terse dialogue might be surprised by its absence (there are some additional scenes, but all feel as if they could have been written by Rattigan initially), Mamet's love of brinkmanship and sleight-of-hand are indulged by the plot, notably in a brilliant scene where Morton interrogates the boy ruthlessly, picking hole after hole in his alibi and reducing the family virtually to tears. When all seems lost, and they are about to leave, despondent, he coolly states 'The boy is plainly innocent. I accept the case.' Such a moment is perfectly acted, scripted and directed; the brilliance of the craftsmanship here means that it doesn't feel showy or forced, but a natural part of the storyline.

The performances are all magnificent. Northam has the most showy part, as the flamboyant barrister, and gets most of the best lines, deservedly winning award after award for it. However, Hawthorne, too often cast as buffoons or ditherers, is very moving as Winslow's father, a strict yet decent man who is ultimately compelled to act in a manner that seems utterly alien to him in the interests of his son. Mamet's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, once again defies accusations of nepotism by being very good indeed (and far better when using her natural British accent than her rather fake-sounding tones in his American films), and Gemma Jones is good in her usual role as the concerned mother.

If you're not a fan of British costume dramas, this is unlikely to be your cup of tea; it has no explosions, sex, car chases or even especially funny moments, other than one briefly uproarious moment early on involving Hawthorne and a walking stick. However, for fans of intelligent, moving cinema at its finest, this is highly and unreservedly recommended.

The Picture

Columbia have done a fairly good job with the transfer. Colours are strong, and there is no evident grain; however, it also feels a little dark and muted from time to time, partly because of the colour scheme used by Mamet and his cinematographer Benoit Dulhomme, but also partly because the transfer has, perhaps, not had as much time spent on it as other, more high-profile films. There is also some slight and irritating print damage, which perhaps should have been remedied. However, it is not too distracting.

The Sound

A 5.1 soundtrack is provided, which really could have been stereo or mono with no noticeable ill effects, so dialogue-based is the film; it's obviously preferable to have as clear and vivid a soundtrack as is provided, but there's nothing even vaguely spectacular here.

The Extras

Not the most varied of selections, but with one absolutely magnificent commentary track. After a slightly hesitant opening, in which Mamet seems restricted by not being able to swear, Hawthorne and Northam soon appear and begin to engage in some of the wittiest banter ever heard on a commentary track, ranging from such topics as architecture, Shakespeare and the average commentary's propensity to be little more than meaningless garbage (Hawthorne: Is this the point where we make pleasant, yet inane, conversation? Northam: But Nigel, is that really an option in your case? Hawthorne: Jeremy, are you insinuating that I'm not pleasant??) Brilliant stuff, and well worth a listen. The other extras are a very, very brief making-of featurette of no real interest, a fairly accurate trailer and already outdated production notes.


A hugely enjoyable film, and one that bears repeated viewings, is presented on a fairly unremarkable disc technically, but with a superb commentary track, which also bears repeated listenings. Given that the identical R2 version can often be bought for around £10 or less, this might well be an investment worth making.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:07:37

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