The Winslow Boy
Director: David Mamet
Screenplay: David Mamet, from the play by Terence Rattigan
Cast: Nigel Hawthorne, Jeremy Northam, Rebecca Pidgeon
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Sony Pictures Classics)

Grade: B+

As I've mentioned before, I don't take notes during screenings, for fear of missing a key image while scribbling; still, potential press-kit marginalia continually springs to mind, and I still remember the two words that dominated my thoughts while watching Mamet's first attempt at directing another writer's story: "precision" and "exquisite." The emotional calibration of the first reel or so, in particular, is mind-bogglingly fine, culminating in a father/son conversation so quietly nerve-wracking -- bite me, Solondz -- that I actually found myself wishing for cheapo plastic armrests to clutch. (Irrelevant aside: the chairs in most studio screening rooms are obscenely comfortable; civilians have no idea what they're missing.) Very little actually happens, and yet the overall effect is spellbinding; at one point, the mere repetition of a direct question that's already been answered threatens to stop the heart. (Hawthorne, alas, has no chance of receiving the Oscar nomination he richly deserves.) It's as magnificent a production as I could hope to see all year; the problem, to the extent that there is one, lies with the play itself, which hasn't aged terribly well and probably wasn't soul-shattering stuff even in its original socio-historical context. The issues raised -- private justice v. public welfare; righteous indignation v. foolhardy arrogance; "Woman: what does she want?" v. "Man: what is he up to?" -- are certainly cogent enough (especially in the wake of Ms. Paula Jones), but Rattigan tackles them timorously, forever keeping drama at arm's length, and Mamet respects his circumspection to a fault. Watching this masterful interpretation of mediocre material is rather like listening to a world-class philharmonic play an evening of Salieri; dazzled though you may be by the musicians' evident skill and passion, you can't help but wonder, baffled, why they didn't choose to dedicate their formidable collective talent to a program of Mozart instead.