"The leader, the great man or woman, does not say, 'The end justifies the means.' The great person says, 'There is no end, and even though it may cost me (as it cost Saint Joan her life; as it may cost X, Y, or Z the election; as it may cost the actor the audition), I'm not going to give them what they want, if what they want is a lie.'
It's the power to resist that affects us."
-David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife
David Mamet's sixth film as a writer-director is "The Winslow Boy," a moving adaptation of British dramatist Terence Rattigan's celebrated play. Set in 1910, "The Winslow Boy" is based on the real-life story of a young naval cadet who is accused of stealing a five shilling postal order. Convinced of the boy's innocence, the Winslow family, including father (Nigel Hawthorne), mother (Gemma Jones) and sister (Rebecca Pidgeon) persuade the country's leading lawyer, Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) to take on the defense. As the case proceeds, it challenges many long-accepted legal notions and sets off a national frenzyand exacts a heavy price on the family.
"I think 'The Winslow Boy' is one of the most immaculately crafted plays I've read," says Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and filmmaker David Mamet ("House of Games," "Things Change," "Homicide," "Oleanna," "The Spanish Prisoner"). "It's a brilliant melodrama, and it's very close to tragedy, which is one of the hardest things to construct. As a dramatist myself, I admire Rattigan, and I tried to do 'The Winslow Boy' as a Broadway play for many years. But I couldn't get the caliber of cast I wanted to put on a stage production. It occurred to me that it was probably easier to make a movie of it, which turned out to be true."
Mamet and producer Sarah Green ("The Spanish Prisoner," "Oleanna," "The Secret of Roan Inish") brought the project to Co-Presidents Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom of Sony Pictures Classics during the Toronto Film Festival in September 1997, and received an immediate enthusiastic response. By March of the following year, they were on location in London shooting the film.
Mamet has previously adapted many classic plays for the stage, including productions of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," "The Cherry Orchard" and "Uncle Vanya" (seen in Louis Malle's film "Vanya on 42nd Street"). "In adaptation, at first it would seem like the other fellow's doing all the work," says Mamet. "But when you get into it, you see it's not true. The previous work exists in its own right and for very good reasons, but you have to make changes to adapt it to the medium of the screen. But to the degree that this succeeds, it's because it's a great piece of dramaturgy on the part of Rattigan."
The entire action of the original play takes place in the drawing room of the Winslow house in South Kensington, London. Mamet's screenplay opens up the action to numerous other locations, including the House of Commons, the Horse Guards, a Suffragette's Headquarters, and Sir Robert Morton's office. Mamet also communicates visually many plot points that had to be made with dialogue in the play. For example, in a scene between Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) and her fiancé John Watherstone (Aden Gilett), he shows her a newspaper cartoon that tells her everything Rattigan had him say. "It was a ten minute scene that became a five minute scene," says Mamet.
To play Arthur Winslow, the father whose relentless search for justice drives the film, Mamet cast Nigel Hawthorne, best known to filmgoers for his Academy Award-nominated performance in the title role of "The Madness of King George," and more recently in "Amistad" (as Martin Van Buren), "The Object of My Affection" and "Madeline." "He and Brenda Blethyn did a short play of mine called 'The Shawl' for BBC Radio, and I've wanted to work with him again ever since," says Mamet. Hawthorne, who had played the role once before, was excited to collaborate with Mamet again. "Arthur Winslow displays a surprising degree of understanding and compassion for a man of his time," says Hawthorne. "He sanctions his daughter's interest in the Suffragette movement, and his older son is a bit silly, but he tolerates him, gets him a safe job in the bank. But when his younger son tells him 'No, I didn't steal that postal order,' he is ready to gamble everything that the family possesses on this simple statement."
As the celebrated lawyer Sir Robert Morton, Mamet chose Jeremy Northam ("Emma," "Mimic," "Amistad," "Gloria," "The Net"). "I saw him in 'Emma' and was so impressed with him that I offered him the role," says Mamet. "Morton is quite reserved," says Northam. "So people accuse him of being cold-hearted, over-ambitious, opportunistic and selfish, and I think that's because no one really knows what he's thinking about. He plays his cards very close to his chest. And he has a way of watching and interpreting what people say and do to a very refined level, and I think that keeps him separate. I think he's probably a very lonely man."
Rebecca Pidgeon ("The Spanish Prisoner") joins the cast in the pivotal role of Catherine Winslow, Arthur's daughter, a committed Suffragette. Catherine suffers the loss of her fiancé due to the notoriety brought by the case. "I think the center of the play is really Catherine," says Mamet. "Her quest for equality for women is congruent to the family's quest for justice for the boy." "Catherine is ahead of her time," says Pidgeon. "She's a pioneer woman, very independent in her thinking. It was a dangerous time, women were being imprisoned and going on hunger strikes, and Catherine had the courage and moral strength to stand up for her convictions. I admire that kind of person."
Gemma Jones ("Sense and Sensibility," "Wilde") is cast in "The Winslow Boy" as Grace Winslow, the family matriarch. "Grace's role in the story is to indicate the solidity and backbone of how things were before this particular event," says Jones. "One is given to understand that it was a happy, loving, warm family. And then, when the ceiling starts to fall down around her she still maintains her dignity and doesn't allow anything to ruffle her feathers. I find that quite touchingand funny, in a way. It might appear sometimes as if her frivolities are a bit silly, but I don't think they are. It's just the way she stays on the straight and narrow."
As Desmond Curry, the family lawyer who's been hopelessly in love with Catherine for years, Mamet chose a long-time colleague, Colin Stinton, who had earlier appeared in his film "Homicide," and played lead roles in "Edmond" and "Speed-the-Plow." RADA-trained actor Aden Gillett, who portrays Catherine's fiancé John Watherstone, has won numerous prizes for his theatre work and appeared in the film "The Borrowers." 13-year-old Guy Edwards, who plays young Ronnie, the Winslow Boy, has been seen in the films "A Pride of Lions" and "Jackie," and on stage as the son of MacDuff in the Royal National Theatre's production of "Macbeth." Matthew Pidgeon (Dickie Winslow), brother to Rebecca Pidgeon both on-screen and off, has been seen on television on "Bombay Blue" and has numerous stage credits. Neil North, who plays the bearded First Lord of the Admiralty, surprised Mamet during his audition. "After he read, I said, 'You're a superb actor, will you please be in the movie?'" says Mamet. "And he said, 'I'd love to. Oh, by the way, I played the part of the Winslow Boy in the original 1950 film.'"
For people whose only exposure to David Mamet's work is "Glengarry Glen Ross" or "American Buffalo," his choice of a project like "The Winslow Boy" might seem unexpected. "Knowing David only by reputation, I thought 'how odd for him to take on this play?'" says Gemma Jones. "I thought he was a sort of in-your-face contemporary American writer. But now that I've come to know him, it's not surprising at all." "David's writing is enormously immaculate," says Nigel Hawthorne. "Every fractured sentence has to be delivered exactly as he wrote ithe's very like Harold Pinter in that respect." "David's plays have to be very well spoken," says Northam. "I wouldn't think for a minute that in order to do a David Mamet piece you'd need less discipline than you would to play this or Shaw. He writes with great accuracy and there's absolutely no spare flesh in his plays whatsoever." "David's work is so modern and yet there is something about him which is as if he really lives in another time," says Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife and frequent artistic collaborator. "You see it in his work with Ricky Jay, the kind of formal Victorian speech they make use of. When he sits down at the piano all the songs he plays are Victorian songs. He is very much an old-fashioned gentleman in a way."
On the set, Mamet was a courtly, calm presence, guiding the cast and crew thoughtfully through his interpretation of each scene. "The way I understood his book about acting," says Northam, "is that actors seem to be no longer in the habit of reading text. They're so obsessed with their personal journey as a character in a story that they don't always look at how that fits into the cogs of the whole machine. I think what he's after is emotional simplicity. I mean, if we can't trust this text, we can't trust any text." "David knows exactly what he wants," says Hawthorne. "I can say, 'Why don't we do it this way? Is the scene about this?'and he'll correct me on almost every point, unless of course," Hawthorne adds with a smile, "he thinks it's a good suggestion." "You know, actors are always trying to make the words mean something," says Pidgeon. "David is always saying, 'no, no, no, the words are just gibberish, the meaning of the scene underlies the words. It's to do with your action and your intention, so forget about the words and let them tumble out.' He'll often give you something to do to distract you from the words. But he'll be clear and precise with action."
When cinematographer Benoît Delhomme ("The Scent of Green Papaya," "Cyclo," "When the Cat's Away," "The Loss of Sexual Innocence") first met with Mamet, he brought along a book of paintings by American painter John Singer Sargeant (1856-1925), who worked during the same period in which "The Winslow Boy" is set. Mamet agreed that this visual strategy was an ideal one for the film. "I tended to use one soft light source, typically from a window," says Delhomme. "Often you will see one side of the face lit and the other side in shadows, just as in Sargeant's portraiture."
Working closely with Mamet, production designer Gemma Jackson ("The Borrowers") created a host of period objects to demonstrate the national furor that the Winslow case was stirring up. Newspaper cartoons, posters, banners, souvenir mugs, pencils, umbrellas, postcards, and even sheet music help tell the story of the film visually, and suggest a resonance with more modern, highly merchandised show trials. The Winslow home was shot in an actual house in Clapham, a South London suburb.
At its center, "The Winslow Boy" is a clarion call for justice: "Let Right be Done." It's an issue that resonates throughout the ages, from the Dreyfuss case to today's headlines. "It's about the difference between justice and right," says Jeremy Northam. "To me, it says that justice is something which is an everyday achievement, but right is a more absolute, abstract, more spiritual term. It's not a question of whether someone has been proved not guilty when everybody knows they are guilty. Right is being right in something beyond human values."
"The power of the dramatist...resides in the ability to state the problem.
(During the O.J. Simpson case I was at a party with a couple of rather famous jurists. I said it occurred to me that a legal battle consisted not in a search for the truth but in jockeying for the right to pick the central issue. They chuckled and pinched me on the cheeks. 'You just skipped the first two years of law school,' one of them said.")
-David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife
"The story on everybody's mind lately is Bill Clinton," says Mamet. "And one of the questions involved in 'The Winslow Boy' is the same question that the women who accused Clinton faced. Assuming that what they say is true: is it worth it? At what point are you willing to pursue truth at the chance of either being called a liar or being acknowledged as having told the truth, and having your privacy destroyed? At what point does it cease being courage and become intractability or arrogance? And again, it's an open question. What have you won when you've won? What's the cost of holding a principle?"