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The Winslow Boy (1999 film)

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Title: The Winslow Boy (1999 film)  
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Subject: David Mamet, Terence Rattigan, Harlequinade (Rattigan), Nigel Hawthorne, The Sound Barrier
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The Winslow Boy (1999 film)

The Winslow Boy
Theatrical release poster
Directed by David Mamet
Produced by Sarah Green
Written by Terence Rattigan (play)
David Mamet (screenplay)
Starring Nigel Hawthorne
Rebecca Pidgeon
Jeremy Northam
Guy Edwards
Gemma Jones
Music by Alaric Jans
Cinematography Benoît Delhomme
Edited by Barbara Tulliver
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Release dates
16 April 1999 (U.S.)
29 October 1999 (UK)
Running time
104 minutes
Country United Kingdom
United States
Language English

The Winslow Boy is a 1999 period drama film directed by David Mamet. Starring Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam and Gemma Jones. Set in London before World War I, it depicts a family defending the honour of its young son at all cost. The screenplay was adapted by Mamet based on Terence Rattigan's dramatic play The Winslow Boy.

It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.[1]


It is Christmas 1911 and Arthur Winslow, a London banker, is making final preparations for a dinner to seal the engagement between his daughter Catherine, an outspoken supporter of the controversial cause of women's suffrage, and Captain John Watherstone. The family and guests are toasting the upcoming marriage when Arthur discovers that his youngest son Ronnie, a 13-year-old cadet at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, is unexpectedly home. Ronnie has been accused of the theft of a postal order. An internal enquiry, conducted without notice to his family and without benefit of representation, finds him guilty and Mr. Winslow is "requested to withdraw" his son from the college (the formula of the day for expulsion). Ronnie proclaims his innocence and his father believes him—enough so that he demands an apology from the College. When the college refuses to reinstate Ronnie, Arthur decides to take the matter to court. With the help of his daughter and Desmond Curry, a solicitor and friend of the family, Mr. Winslow decides to hire the most highly sought after barrister in England at the time, Sir Robert Morton, known also to be a shrewd opposition Member of Parliament.

The government is unwilling to allow the case to proceed. The Naval College is a representative of the Admiralty and the Crown, and as such British law presumes they are infallible and above question; their judgment can be legally questioned only with the permission of the Attorney General. However, after heated debates in the House of Commons, the government yields, and the case does come to court.

Catherine had expected Sir Robert to decline the case, or at best to treat it as a political tool; instead, he is coolly matter-of-fact about having been persuaded of Ronnie's innocence by his responses to questioning (in fact, a form of cross-examination, to see how young Ronnie would hold up in court) in the presence of his family. Catherine, a left-wing suffragette, is not enthusiastic about Morton, whom she considers cold and heartless. Catherine is also disturbed by Sir Robert's establishment views: he is a conservative opponent of women’s suffrage. "He always speaks out against what is right," she observes to her father, though she admires his legal skills. Morton, for his part, obviously is quite taken with Catherine from the moment he meets her in his offices; later he stares at her as she arrives at the House of Commons and as she watches the proceedings from the ladies' gallery.

In the meantime, the case creates media hysteria and puts a heavy toll on the Winslow family – their funds are rapidly depleted in order to cover legal expenses. Mr. Winslow's physical health deteriorates under the strain and the happiness of the Winslows' home is destroyed. Arthur's wife, Grace, begins to wonder if the real issue is justice or a father's stubborn and foolish pride. Forced to make economical sacrifices, Grace Winslow is unwilling to take the drastic measure of dismissing Violet, who has been the family’s maid for over twenty years. The eldest son, Dickie Winslow, has to leave Oxford due to the lack of money destroying his chance at a career in the Civil Service. Instead, he is compelled to find employment in his father’s bank. Catherine's marriage settlement is also gone. Her fiancé John Watherstone breaks off the engagement in the face of opposition from his father (an Army Colonel), forcing her to consider a sincere and well-intentioned offer of marriage from Desmond, whom she does not love. Sir Robert has also declined appointment as Lord Chief Justice, rather than drop the case. The least affected is Ronnie, who happily has been transferred to a new school.

At trial, Sir Robert (working together with Desmond Curry and his firm) is able to discredit much of the supposed evidence. The Admiralty, certainly embarrassed and presumably no longer confident of Ronnie's guilt, abruptly withdraws all charges against him, proclaiming the boy entirely innocent.

When their resounding victory arrives, not a single member of the Winslow’s family is present at court. It is Violet, the maid, who tells Mr. Winslow and Catherine what has happened at court. Shortly after, Sir Robert appears in the Winslows’ home to share the good news. The film ends with a suggestion that romance might yet blossom between Sir Robert and Catherine, who acknowledges that she had misjudged him all along.



Shot in London, the film was directed by David Mamet who originally had thought of making a theatrical production of Rattigan's dramatic play, which had been previously filmed in 1948. After failing to find backers for the project, Mamet decided to adapt the play for the big screen. It was produced by Sarah Green with Sally French, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard as associate producers. The screenplay was adapted by Mamet based on Rattigan's play. The music score was by Alaric Jans and the cinematography by Benoît Delhomme.

Neil North who played the title role in the 1948 version also appears in this version (as the First Lord of the Admiralty). In the audio commentary for the DVD release, Mamet says he had already cast North in the film before he was told that North also appeared in the 1948 version.

In the DVD commentary, Jeremy Northam claims that film director Mike Newell originated the role of Ronnie Winslow in the original stage production. However, this is mistaken; Northam has confused another actor who is also named Michael Newell, who is now a real-estate agent. Mike Newell (the director) was born in 1942, and since the play premiered in 1946, it is not possible for a four-year-old to have played that role. Rebecca Pidgeon, who plays Catherine, is the wife of playwright and director David Mamet. Matthew Pidgeon, who plays Dickie Winslow (Catherine's brother), is Rebecca Pidgeon's real-life brother.


Set against the strict codes of conduct and manners of the age, The Winslow Boy is based on a father's fight to clear his son's name after the boy is expelled from Osborne Naval College for stealing a postal order. To clear the boy's name was imperative for the family's honour; had they not done so, they would have been shunned by their peers and society. The boy's life would have been wrecked by the stain on his character.

The play was inspired by an actual event, which set a legal Major Martin Archer-Shee, was convinced of his innocence, and persuaded his father (also called Martin) to engage lawyers. The most respected barrister of the day, Sir Edward Carson was also persuaded of his innocence, and insisted on the case coming to court. On the fourth day of the trial, the Solicitor General accepted that Archer-Shee was innocent, and ultimately the family was paid compensation. George Archer-Shee died in the First World War and his name is inscribed on the war memorial in the village of Woodchester in Gloucestershire where his parents lived.


DVD release

The film was released on DVD in the U.S.A. on February 2000. The special features include an audio commentary by director/screenwriter David Mamet and cast members, Jeremy Northam, Nigel Hawthorne and Rebecca Pidgeon. The DVD also includes theatrical trailers for The Winslow Boy and The Spanish Prisoner. There is a short "making of" feature.


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