"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
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
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
"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."