Provost's Film Series
April 26, 2004
Expulsion and Ideology
David Mamet's film The Winslow Boy is an adaptation of a famous play by British dramatist Terrence Rattingan. Mamet called Rattingan's script "one of the most immaculately crafted plays I've read. . . . a brilliant melodrama, very close to tragedy, which is one of the hardest things to construct." Previously made into a film in 1946, the play recounts the story of fourteen-year-old Ronnie Winslow (which is Rattingan's name for the real-life George Arthur-Shee). In 1912 the young cadet had been expelled from the Royal Naval Academy for stealing a five-shilling postal note. Enraged that the expulsion occurred without the family's knowledge and without legal representation, the boy's father puts his reputation, his daughter's marriage, and his own fortunes on the line in an obsessive crusade for judicial review. The case would preoccupy the nation. In Mamet's retelling of the story, the daughter's liberal politics often clash with the family's sense of social order. Catherine Winslow joins her father in his zeal on behalf of young Ronnie, and her devotion to the case soon rivals her passion in support of women's suffrage. Father and daughter enlist an experienced barrister from the King's Counsel, a young, confident, and highly conservative member of the House of Lords. The romantic and ideological tensions between the daughter and the barrister provide both a subplot to the trial and a metaphor for the transition between two centuries.
Before he tried his hand at film, David Mamet had secured a reputation as one of America's foremost playwrights. He won the 1984 Pultizer Prize for Glengarry Glenn Ross. Many of his plays—such as American Buffalo and Oleanna—were filmed by other directors, and Mamet soon began to write scripts directly for the cinema, including the political satire Wag the Dog. As both writer and director, Mamet drew attention for The Spanish Prisoner, a complex whodunit full of postmodern loose ends, and State and Main, a satire of the film industry set in a small Vermont town (although shot almost entirely in nearby Manchester-by-the-Sea).
At first glance The Winslow Boy's portrait of life in the upper crust of British society in 1912 appears to owe more to Masterpiece Theater than the raw language and bad alleys of Mamet's earlier plays. But the film sustains several of the themes that have distinguished Mamet's career. It reveals a culture in which principled behavior and honor are often at odds with moral accountability. It treats a crime as a surface distraction while a deeper sense of drama begins to emerge in quiet, nearly subliminal ways. Whether portraying low-life con men or the Edwardian elite, Mamet's plays often feature characters whose language seems scripted, a repression of emotional longing in favor of the normative manners and expectations of their respective cultures. With a style that he called "practical aesthetics," Mamet encourages his actors to play their "talky parts" with an "understated" restraint, leaving us guessing about the distance between their words and their hearts.
Along with his cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Mamet tries in this film to imitate the visual style of the American painter John Singer Sargent, whose greatest work occurred about the time of the trial. "I tended to use one soft light source, typically from a window," Delhomme claimed. "Often you will see one side of the face lit and the other side in shadows, just as in Sargent's portraiture." Frequently commissioned to paint portraits of high society patrons, Sargent was known to dwell on the bright elegance of privilege, although at closer inspection there generally are undercurrents of moral tension. Similarly, the visual style of The Winslow Boy presents characters at home among the elite, but the imagery also suggests that the accusations against the boy are not merely questions of his personal integrity but threats to the family's prevailing sense of entitlement. In keeping the lens almost entirely in the family house, Mamet treats the trial less as a dispute over the facts and the rule of law than a psychological test.
During the 1912 trial, some commentators in England observed that the entire affair was luring the national attention away from more urgent political matters. Indeed, as newspapers focused on the courtroom spectacle, a crisis was brewing in the Balkans. That turmoil led to World War I, or what was originally known as "The Great War." When the first film version appeared near the end of World War II, audiences were aware that the Great War was merely the first of two bitter conflicts that would signal English vulnerability, erode the ideal of British empire, and cut down two generations of British soldiers. Not surprisingly, there is a sense of foreboding in Rattingan's play that spreads a shadow over the debate about the expulsion of the "Winslow boy" from naval school. In 1946, many in the British audience knew the end of the story already—that George Archer-Shee would lose his life in World War I. As much as the story reveals a turn-of-the-century family trying to cling to the old ways of military honor and social prestige, the trial of the "Winslow boy" becomes, through literature, a tale of a nation's inability to hear the impending footsteps of twentieth-century horrors.
Dignity or Distraction?
Filmed half a century later, Mamet's version of the story is farther removed from this sense of worldwide tragedy, causing some critics to lament that the film is really an exercise in nostalgia for a lost social decorum. But there are some contemporary overtones, especially in allusions to the "trouble in the Balkans." As Robert Waring observes, "public absorption in the case of the Winslow boy was a form of mass distraction from concerns about the world's troubles. It gave people a chance to forget that the old world they knew was crumbling around them, and that cataclysmic events of unimaginable terror were about to overtake them. Thus, the case foreshadowed Court TV and similar programming four score years later: a forum where people can attempt to either grasp or avoid the overwhelming scope of society's ills by watching the fate of a single person played out before them." We certainly have our own debates today about obsessions with courtroom trials and about dignity in military families. When we keep flag-draped coffins out of the public eye, do we preserve the privacy and honor of military? Or have we merely pushed Scott Peterson, Martha Stewart and Kobe Bryant into a media spotlight that should focus instead on the human tragedies in Iraq?