A good cast can make all the difference in the world to a movie, even when it comes from a filmmaker like David Mamet.
Despite his impressive pedigree as a playwright, a screenwriter and a novelist, Mamet's movies have usually suffered as a consequence of his unique directorial style, which sometimes stresses unemotional line-reading over actual acting.And though his latest effort, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play "The Winslow Boy," has some of the usual Mamet problems, it probably features some of the finest performances he's coaxed out of a cinematic cast yet.
His version of the tale also deserves points for being a most unusual legal drama -- one that often takes place behind the scenes rather than in court, which helps him develop flesh-and-blood characters instead of the usual dialogue-spouting automatons.
Based on a true story from post-World War I England, the drama follows a family's attempts to clear its name in the wake of a scandal. Young cadet Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) has been drummed out of the Royal Naval Academy after being accused of theft.
Needless to say, the family's rigid family patriarch Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) isn't pleased. So he and daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) set out to prove the boy's innocence, despite the cost to his health and wealth, as well as her social life.
However, the two have a hard time convincing anyone to represent them legally, not just because Ronnie appears guilty but because undertaking the case could jeopardize their social standing.
Eventually, they do find an advocate, a well-known attorney named Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) who finally gets them their day in court -- despite the fact that he butts heads with Catherine over her feminist beliefs.
As you can probably guess, there is the romantic subplot involving the two characters, which is probably the film's weakest link. And like his other efforts, "The Winslow Boy" does feature rather unimaginative directing style and static direction, both of which betray Mamet's theatrical background.
But the limited use of set pieces also gives the film a feeling of intimacy, which also leads to some very good performances. Hawthorne's character is the epitome of strength even as he is eroding physically, while Northam does a superb job voicing Morton's impassioned pleas for justice.
And though the usually stolid Pidgeon (a k a, Mrs. David Mamet) is still a little muted in her performance, it's nice to finally see her crack a smile, if not actually emote to some small degree.
"The Winslow Boy" is rated G but does feature use of some mildly vulgar British slang terms.