Ah, the improbability of cinema : if you had asked me a year ago what the most thrilling film of 1999 would be at this juncture, I don't think David Mamet's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1940s play about a student unjustly expelled from a boys' naval academy during the Edwardian era would have been my first choice. But it is. It generates more suspense than Mamet's overrated The Spanish Prisoner, far too self-conscious an exercise in plot machination. Particularly riveting is the scene where aggressive MP Sir Robert Morton (a terrific Jeremy Northam), mercilessly grills Ronnie Winslow, the boy accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. The Winslow Boy is also adept at charting the strains father Arthur's (Nigel Hawthorne) quest for justice in his son's case places on his family, especially his daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon). The drama is enhanced, parodoxically, by the extreme reserve shown by all the characters; any break in their cool facade registers as a moment of great emotional meaning. Indeed, the most emotionally affecting moment is a simple stutter.
I'm also now convinced that Mamet is a superior filmmaker; his direction here is among the best of a play adaptation I've seen. While he does open Rattigan's original up by some of the traditional ways (contrary to my rather hyberbolic capsule), his methods are based on more subtle techniques that in their quiet way display his full skill as a film director. The main way Mamet opens the film up is one I've never noticed in a film adaptation of a stage play before. His major method of removing the staginess from Rattigan's play is to emphasize the depth of his mise-en-scene. He does this by at least two methods. He often shoots the action through doorways in long medium shots; the effect is not unlike having the camera take the perspective of a servant covertly eavesdropping on her employers. Mamet further emphasizes the three-dimensionality of his setting by shooting at an askew angle. And on one other occasion, he uses an entirely different method. When Arthur greets a lady reporter covering the case, he leads her to an interior room of the house. The camera tracks them, but unfortunately there's this pesky wall in the way. It's so completely unexpected that it breaks any sense of watching a filmed play. Once again, Mamet emphasizes perspective by staging his action in a way that would be near unthinkable in a theatrical production.
I really have no idea what to make of Rebecca Pidgeon's performance. She comes off as extremely mannered and self-conscious, and her delivery is a bit off, as if she were a singer consistenly coming in late. Oddly, this makes her compellingly watchable; Pidgeon's work is either intriguingly terrible or terribly intriguing, and I'm not sure which is correct. I had the same reaction to her role in The Spanish Prisoner.
Take that, Terrence Rafferty!