The Winslow Boy is a first-class David Mamet film of indirection, understatement and cool emotion. A young cadet at the Royal Naval Academy has been expelled for stealing a five-shilling postal order from another cadet. He swears to his father that he didn't do it and his father believes him. At that point Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) becomes determined to prove his son innocent. He is rebuffed by the Admiralty because, as part of the Queen's government, the Admiralty can do no wrong and cannot be sued. He engages a famous solicitor, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), who agrees to take the brief. Morton eventually succeeds in bringing the case before the House of Commons on a petition of right, where even the lowest of the Queen's subjects can have the opportunity "to have right be done." All this takes years. The Winslow family suffers ridicule and financial distress. Arthur Winslow's daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), a prickly and intelligent suffragette, sees her opportunity for an advantageous marriage evaporate. His son is forced to leave Oxford and take a banking job. His wife sees so much of the security of the home vanish in the costs of the case. The case, based on a true happening, finally is won.
Mamet's screenplay is based on the Forties play by Terrence Rattigan. It's a solid piece of work that keeps the story moving and concentrates on the characters. The interplay among the characters is excellent, especially between Catherine Winslow and Sir Robert Morton. The dialogue may be on the surface exquisitely courteous, but underneath runs unexpected currents that are a lot of fun to witness. Northam's Morton is smart, secure, successful and not at all sympathetic to suffragettes. But it gradually becomes clear he rather likes intelligent women and that the end of the case may not be the last Catherine Winslow sees of him:
Sir Robert Morton: You still pursue your feminist activities?
Catherine Winslow: Oh yes.
Sir Robert: Pity. It's a lost cause.
Catherine: Oh, do you really think so, Sir Robert? How little you know about women. Good-bye. I doubt that we shall meet again.
Sir Robert: Do you really think so, Miss Winslow? How little you know about men.
It has always seemed strange to me that those who like Mamet almost never mention this movie, yet it appears to me that this is one of his most solidly directed and written films. It may be that, like Scorsese's Age of Innocence, it just doesn't fit into preconceived notions of what the director's films should be like. At any rate, this is a clever and satisfying movie, and very well acted. Perhaps one day we'll see a DVD of the version with Robert Donat and Margaret Leighton. It's first rate, too.