1999 is considered one of the strongest years of cinema in living memory. There will no doubt be countless articles in 2019 marking the 20th anniversaries of that year’s greatest hits and examining their impact and legacy.
But this column isn’t about those movies. This column is about the overlooked gems from 1999 — the weird, ungainly, or unjustly forgotten films that don’t usually get listed alongside the established classics, but which are just as deserving of their own retrospectives.
The Winslow Boy
When David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy was released in April 1999, it was considered something of an outlier in his filmography. Gone are the low-rent crooks, con men, and gangsters of his most famous scripts (Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, The Untouchables), and in their place are the polite — some would say repressed — members of the British gentry in the lead-up to World War I. Even more surprising, given Mamet’s penchant for profane dialogue, was the film’s G rating — the closest thing to a curse word in the film is “whore,” and the person who speaks it gets cut off half-way through her utterance.
Of course, anyone who is truly familiar with Mamet’s body of work recognizes how The Winslow Boy is entirely of a piece with the rest of it. Despite its genteel trappings, the action revolves around a crime — in this case an accusation of petty theft that gets a young cadet expelled from his military academy, leading his proud, aged father and suffragette sister to mount a seemingly hopeless legal defense on his behalf — while the dialogue is as circuitous, combative, and jargon-heavy as ever, albeit with complex legalese revolving around British Admiralty laws swapped in for his usual streetwise argot.
More importantly, the film shares themes found throughout Mamet’s oeuvre — namely, the self-destructive struggle to retain individual honor in the face of corrupt systems of power. (Mamet, even before his hard rightwing turn the following decade, was ever the libertarian.) The Winslow Boy, like Glengarry Glen Ross, like American Buffalo, like Homicide, Edmond, and Redbelt, is, at its core, a morality tale.
Despite being most famous for his dialogue, Mamet has always approached filmmaking as a purely visual medium, going so far as to write, in his short 1992 manual On Film Directing, “Basically, the perfect movie doesn’t have any dialogue. So you should always be striving to make a silent movie.”
Movies, according to Mamet, should be composed of a series of linear incidents driven by the characters striving toward an ultimate goal. In the case of The Winslow Boy, that goal is to “Let Right Be Done.”
Mamet builds his story around the attainment of that philosophical concept rather than the actual crime at its center — which, after all, is merely a child’s forgery of a five shilling postal order (even the characters within the film remark on the disparity between the weight of the crime and its fallout). While the film never firmly establishes whether the titular Winslow boy is actually guilty, neither does it play things as a mystery. Nor, for that matter, is it interested in the expected beats of the legal drama. There are a couple of scenes set in the chambers of Parliament, but for the most part, the action occurs outside the halls of justice. We never once get a glimpse of the actual trial and we (along with the Winslow family) only learn the verdict secondhand.
It would be easy to call this a subversion of genre tropes except that Mamet closely adapted the script from Terence Rattigan’s 1946 stage play, so it predates much of what we’ve come to expect from the genre. And besides, Mamet is as uninterested in subversion as he is in the tropes themselves. Even when the story takes a turn toward the romantic — all of which is played with so much restraint that it makes Jane Austen seem like Russ Meyer — you never get the sense that Mamet is taking the piss. Rather, you can tell that he respects these characters for their reticence and dignified bearing.
(That being said, anyone familiar with history can’t miss the dark irony inherent to story: The Winslow family seeks to uphold the good name of their youngest member at all costs, yet the creeping specter of World War I means that he is about to walk head-first into a massacre, as was the case with the real-life inspiration for the character, George Archer-Shee, who perished in that conflict).
Thanks to its lack of heightened drama and its ultra-small scale, The Winslow Boy was never going to attract a wide audience, including the usual crowds that flock to austere English costume dramas.
It’s their loss, as the movie is a never less than thoroughly engaging and intellectually stimulating. The performances, particularly those of Nigel Hawthorne as the proud-but-obsessive Winslow patriarch, and Jeremy Northam as the hotshot barrister and Opposition Party member who takes up the boy’s defense, are as good as anything you’ll find in other classy period pieces from the time period (and up to now). The third lead, Mamet’s wife and long-time collaborator Rebecca Pidgeon, is also good, though her mannered performance was one of the more contentious aspects among critics and to be sure, she never feels as effortless as her co-stars.
The direction, meanwhile, is crisp and clean, appropriately small without coming off as stagey, and includes some of the best cinematography to be found in any of Mamet’s films.
In a year where emerging auteurs like Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and David Fincher were releasing formally daring new work and studios were churning glossy, overly busy, mostly adolescent fare (the more things change, right?), The Winslow Boy stands out as a admirable experiment in reticence and stoicism.
I say let right be done and give this one its day in court.