David Mamet knew just what he was doing when he titled his first film as a writer-director House of Games (1987). One way or another, every movie he has made has been a house of games. He’s become our most ardent purveyor of cinematic puzzles, movies that delight in making mincemeat of audience expectations. The Winslow Boy, Mamet’s sixth film as a director, is the first he has adapted from someone else’s material (it’s a streamlined version of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play), and, in its meticulous, tidy way, it turns out to be his most elegant sleight of hand yet.
At first, the notion of Mamet staging a veddy British costume drama sounds like something from Saturday Night Live. One thinks of real estate salesmen in cummerbunds cussing with effete delicacy as they politely con each other out of deeds to ancient castles. But The Winslow Boy casts its own sly, Mamet-on-the-Thames spell. Certainly, he’s got the middlebrow-aristocratic style down cold: the creamy saturated colors, the impeccable rhythms that punctuate the most casual conversation. Within this rarefied world, though, unfurls a drama of wicked subtlety and moral finesse. This is one Mamet game that’s been booby-trapped with passion.
Based on an actual incident, the film, set in 1912, traces a trivial scandal that blows up into an inflammatory cultural/legal/media sideshow, a kind of post-Victorian O.J. saga. Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne), a London banker, slightly smug in his benevolence, arrives home on the eve of his daughter’s engagement to learn that his 13-year-old son, Ronnie (Guy Edwards), has been booted out of the prestigious Osbourne Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal note. When the boy swears his innocence with shining eyes, Arthur decides to fight the verdict with all his resources. The trouble is, he’s accusing the Admiralty and the Crown of having acted with injustice. To save his son’s honor, he puts England’s on the line.
The Winslow case becomes a controversial cause celebre, com-plete with buttons, songs, banner headlines. Yet Mamet knows that the real drama isn’t public but private. It springs from the teasingly ambiguous motives of everyone involved. Since those motives are rarely voiced, we’re held in a state of acute psychological suspension. The ambiguity begins with the boy himself (can we be sure he’s not guilty?) and then extends to Arthur Winslow: Is his dedication to proving his son’s innocence a noble act, or is it a quixotic upper-class folly born of vanity? The most fantastically hard-to-pin-down character is Robert Morton, the celebrated attorney whom Arthur enlists to take the case. Played with poker-faced dash by Jeremy Northam, who looks like a plummier young Laurence Olivier, he’s a coolly witty manipulator who establishes his surgical thrust of mind during the mesmerizing scene in which he interrogates Ronnie. The one who doesn’t trust Robert is Arthur’s daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), a devoted suffragette who spars with him mercilessly. She sees his egotism, his peacock brilliance — everything but his true motivation for taking the case. Only in England, or a David Mamet movie, could the urgency of romantic love turn out to be the ultimate deception. A-