David Mamet's sixth film as writer and director is an odd choice. Although he's opened up Terence Rattigan's original one-room-set stage play for the big screen, he's retained most of the wordy dialogue.
He's also retained the historical references, and while the level of incidental detail is impeccable, more than a smattering of period knowledge is needed to fill in the gaps. That said, The Winslow Boy has much in its favour for lovers of the play and those after more intellectually challenging fare than your average multiplex offering.
The story has its origins in a real-life case in which a boy was found guilty of stealing, appealed to the King, and was only declared innocent and compensated after a lengthy court battle. Rattigan took some liberties in adapting this tale for his original play: the action was brought forward a few years so the sister, Catherine, could be a suffragette and the legal battle could play against the backdrop of a world on the brink of war. The legalese, meanwhile, was toned down, although it's been further reduced for the screen version, and the emphasis has been shifted to Nigel Hawthorne as the father who simply wants "right to be done".
And Hawthorne is outstanding in the part. The audience witness his personal decay over the years it takes to bring the case to court, as he throws all his energy into the battle for justice. Fighting alongside him is Catherine, who also makes sacrifices to clear her brother's name. It's a gift of a role for any actress and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) really makes the most of it, getting her teeth into the incisive dialogue her helmer-husband has provided.
Acting honours also go to Jeremy Northam as the celebrated lawyer who takes the family's case, Gemma Jones as the mother who questions the motives of her family's actions and Guy Edwards as the youngest Winslow, terrified of the outcome but trying to maintain a stiff upper lip.
The Winslow Boy may have been a strange choice for Mamet, but it's undeniably a good one, delivering two taut hours of first-class cinema.
An astonishing drama which manages to be both involving and entertaining while maintaining period detail. While not a required big-screen experience - it would play just as well on television - this is a must for fans of dialogue over action.