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Review: 'Winslow Boy' isn't everyone's cup of tea

May 3, 1999
Web posted at: 4:17 p.m. EDT (2017 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- How important is the truth? How far would you go to defend your family against false accusations? Is being right worth losing everything you have?

These are the questions asked in the new film "The Winslow Boy." It's based on Terrence Rattigan's 1946 stage drama which, in turn, was loosely based on the 1910 trial of an English military cadet wrongfully dismissed for stealing a postal order.

Set in 1912, this English period piece stars Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon and Guy Edwards and is directed by the renowned playwright David Mamet.

Mamet's plays are known for their raw emotions and even rawer language. So it seems a strange choice for him to direct "The Winslow Boy."

Watch a clip of "The Winslow Boy"
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Of course it can't hurt that his wife, Pidgeon, plays Catherine Winslow, the older sister of the Winslow boy. Much of Mamet's work either ignores or marginalizes women, although they're frequently played on stage and screen by Pidgeon ("Speed-the-Plow," "Oleanna," "The Spanish Prisoner"). So this piece does give him a chance to feature a strong actress to whom he happens to be related. What's more, Catherine's brother Dickie is played by Pidgeon's real-life brother, Matthew Pidgeon, in his film debut.

Nevertheless, this family affair is still a stagy character study about a 13-year-old boy expelled from his military academy for allegedly stealing five shillings from a fellow classmate. You guessed it: This is not an epic.

Hawthorne and family honor

Hawthorne ("The Madness Of King George" and TV's "Yes, Prime Minister") stars as Arthur Winslow, father of Ronnie who's played by Edwards. When his son is falsely accused of petty theft, the elder Winslow stubbornly refuses to let the matter rest and hires one of England's most famous attorneys, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), to defend his child up to and including a hearing before the House of Lords.

Apparently, life in England at the time was fairly boring, since this minor case caught the attention of the country and became a scandal. Of course, the entire "Winslow" family is caught up in the drama and each reacts in different ways to the sudden infamy brought upon their name.

The acting is superb in this itty-bitty film that feels like it's still tightly bound to the stage. Little actually happens in the 104 minutes it takes to tell this simple story.

But the really annoying aspect of this trial film is that there are hardly any scenes in a courtroom. Even the final verdict is handled off-camera and we hear about it later.

In all fairness, everything in terms of production values is done well in this film. But ultimately modern audiences will probably find little to relate to or care about in this wafer-thin plot.

People who appreciate very polite, very period and very British drama might find "The Winslow Boy" just their cup of tea. For the rest of us, "Winslow" can be very slow going.

"The Winslow Boy" opened in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, April 30, and will open slowly across the country during the month of May. The movie is rated G with a running time of 104 minutes.

Review: Stilted script traps actors in 'Spanish Prisoner'
April 5, 1998

Sony Pictures Classics
'The Winslow Boy'
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