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US writer and director David Mamet, with a reputation for contempo, urban, in-your-face drama, tackles a period piece that was written by a Brit about the price and value of moral right in an English family. Seems tame, until you see it. The filmmaker and his cast talk about The Winslow Boy and his tough 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 has previously adapted many classic plays for the stage"

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.

"I've wanted to work with him again ever since," Mamet on casting Nigel Hawthorne

To play Arthur Winslow, the father whose relentless search for justice drives the film, Mamet cast Nigel Hawthorne. "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 keen 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 - pic - (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."

"She's a pioneer woman, very independent in her thinking." on the pivotal role of Catherine

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) plays 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 touching—and 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."

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," Nigel Hawthorne

"David's writing is enormously immaculate," says Hawthorne. "Every fractured sentence has to be delivered exactly as he wrote it - he'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."

"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."

"Right is being right in something beyond human values." Jeremy Northam

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."

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David Mamet's sixth film as a writer-director is 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 frenzy—and exacts a heavy price on the family.

"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


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