Although it has been around for more than ten years, I finally caught up with David Mamet’s film version of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy. Rattigan may have been left behind in the theatre stakes when the ‘angry young men’ came to prominence around the middle of the twentieth century, but this play (set approximately one hundred years ago) still speaks to us today.
I think that (the late) Nigel Hawthorne manages to strike the right note in his depiction of the Edwardian paterfamilias. He is not quite as repressed and buttoned-up as a Victorian father, although he may appear so initially. His love for his family and his respect for his eldest daughter, a thirty-year-old, who supports female suffrage and who comes to be the strongest supporter and protestor of her younger brother’s innocence, are just below the surface. This is a man who would discipline his children if he believed it necessary, but who also understands them instinctively and emotionally. He knows sacrifices will have to be made in the struggle to clear his son’s name, but he doesn’t unconditionally demand that his family make them; he gives them a choice.
Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow) is a match for her father, although she may be more intellectual than he is. Her reading matter and political beliefs prepare her for the legal battle that she will need to pursue to clear her brother’s (Dickie) name. She is the one who finds Sir Robert Morton, the barrister and MP, who takes on the defence of her brother. Despite her social standing as a middle class spinster, she knows exactly how to deal with him. Her initial assessment of him as a ‘whore’ who is only interested in earning money from his legal practice, is destroyed when she learns that he has turned down a prestigious job as a reward for dropping the Winslow case. Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert) also has some reassessments to make when we learn that his cool demeanour and sang froid are compromised as he sheds tears in court after winning his case. From here it is only a short step to accepting that he and Catherine have each come to learn more about the opposite sex and that they would have a life together if the play were to have a sequel. Initially they both seem emotionally repressed (although she loses her fiancé because of her brother’s trial, she doesn’t act like a woman in love) but their fight for a common cause and a belief that holds them both, brings them together.
The play and film examine family relationships at a time of great strain, the fight to prove somebody innocent at all odds after they have been falsely accused, and show how a fourteen-year-old boy is able to take on the establishment and win. Nowadays, when we hear how so many family relationships have broken down and how young people have no role models, it reminds us that it wasn’t always thus.
The verdict is delivered so suddenly, and reported rather than portrayed, so even this remains very low key. They story may have started on a celebratory note as Catherine announced her engagement, but Dickie’s vindication is deserving of a much greater celebration. This doesn’t take place, but in our hearts we are more than overjoyed, both at his acquittal, and at the way his family have never lost their trust and belief in him.