This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
"The Winslow Boy," based on a play set in 1910, is said to be a strange choice for David Mamet, whose work usually involves lowlifes and con men, gamblers and thieves. Not really. This film, like many of his stories, is about whether an offscreen crime really took place. And it employs his knack for using the crime as a surface distraction while his real subject takes form at a buried level. "The Winslow Boy" seems to be about a young boy accused of theft. It is actually about a father prepared to ruin his family to prove that the boy's word (and by extension his own word) can be trusted. And about a woman who conducts two courtships in plain view while a third, the real one, takes place entirely between the lines.
The movie is based on a 1940s play by Terence Rattigan, inspired by a true story. It involves the Winslow family of South Kensington, London--the father a retired bank official, wife pleased with their life, adult daughter a suffragette, older son at Oxford, younger son a cadet at the Royal Naval Academy. One day the young cadet, named Ronnie, is found standing terrified in the garden. He has been expelled from school for stealing a five-shilling postal order.
In a scene that establishes the moral foundation for the entire story, his father Arthur calls him into the study after dinner and demands the truth, adding, "A lie between us cannot be hidden." Did he steal the money? "No, Father, I didn't." The father is played by Nigel Hawthorne ("The Madness Of King George"), who is stern, firm and on the brink of old age. He believes his son and calls in the family solicitor to mount a defense. Soon one of the most famous attorneys in London has been hired: Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), who led the defense of Oscar Wilde. The father devotes his family's large but finite resources to the expensive legal battle, which eventually leads to the older son being brought home from Oxford, servants being dismissed and possessions being sold. Arthur's wife Grace (Gemma Jones) protests that justice is not worth the price being paid, but Arthur persists in his unwavering obsession.
The court case inspires newspaper headlines, popular songs, public demonstrations and debates in Parliament. It proceeds on the surface level of the film. Underneath, hidden in a murk of emotional contradictions, is the buried life of the suffragette daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon). She is engaged to the respectable, bloodless John Watherstone (Aden Gillett). She has known for years that Desmond, the family solicitor (Colin Stinton) is in love with her. As the case gains notoriety, John's ardor cools: He fears the name Winslow is becoming a laughingstock. And as John fades, Desmond's hopes grow. But the only interesting tension between Catherine and a man involves her disapproval of the great Sir Robert Morton, who rejects her feelings about women's equality and indeed disagrees with more or less every idea she possesses.