Some good people have been wondering what possessed David Mamet to film Terence Rattigan's play The Winslow Boy, something so far removed from his stock-in-trade. Based on a British law case from 1908-10 in which a father fought the expulsion of his young son from a naval college, it tells how an elderly, not so healthy or wealthy man gambled everything to clear the boy accused of stealing a chum's five-shilling postal note. To challenge the Crown, he managed to acquire the services of a distinguished barrister, not ordinarily apt to take on such a case, save that the poor odds tickled his vanity.
I imagine I am not giving away much when I tell you that the case was won, or there would have been no movie here. The Admiralty, as defendant, grudgingly conceded the case after four days of trial. The legal maneuverings were highly complicated, and Rattigan took a number of liberties. Thus he moved the action forward to World War I to intensify matters, and he turned Catherine Winslow (all names were changed), the expelled Ronnie's sister, from a conservative to a suffragette. The much older brother became a larking Oxford undergrad, Dickie. So Rattigan was able to magnify the family's sacrifices, which included Dickie's having to give up Oxford and Catherine's losing her arch-conservative fiancÚ.
Mamet relished the idea of a royal government being proved wrong. More important, I suspect, he saw a chance to display his English wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, and provide her brother, Matthew, a relatively obscure stage actor, with his first movie role. Mrs. Mamet, to be sure, had been in other movies and plays of her husband's, but as Catherine (so the thinking must have gone) she could show off her Old World British finesse, while her brother could enjoy an easy but showy -- and, above all, British -- role tailored for him.
As it happens, Matthew is quite good as the grasshopper who must turn ant, and even his slightly goony, gap-toothed look works in his favor. The movie, much more than the play, suggests a buried love interest between Catherine and Sir Robert Morton, as the lawyer is called here (in reality, he was Edward Carson, Oscar Wilde's nemesis). For this purpose, Mamet cast Jeremy Northam in a part that befits an older actor. At the London premiere of the play, it was Emlyn Williams, then 42; in the 1947 English movie version, it was Robert Donat, 43. Northam, possibly the most popular young leading man of the British stage and screen, was clearly an uxorious husband's gift to his wife. He does well enough, but lacks the seasoned, shrewd, icy superiority that would enhance the drama.
At least the father, Arthur Winslow, is perfectly cast: Nigel Hawthorne may be England's pawkiest, most complex character actor today, and he brings to the role a blend of canniness and idealism, stubbornness and sensitivity, delectably right. Gemma Jones, an archetypal English mother hen, anguishes admirably as his wife. Even Colin Stinton, a Mamet protégé and very American, does surprisingly well as the shy family solicitor hopelessly in love with Catherine. That Aden Gillett, as Catherine's weak-kneed fiancé, is a bit cloddish heightens the interest in the Catherine-Sir Robert sparring, she being such a liberal, he so conservative.
But, alas, in the beefed-up part of Catherine (the movie might as well have been called The Winslow Girl) we get Mrs. Mamet. If smugness were edible, Rebecca Pidgeon could provide food for every last displaced Kosovar. Was there an actress within living memory who so oozed self-satisfaction from every pore, whose voice so throbbed with condescension, talking at people rather than to them? Add to this what can be called either Bette Davis bug eyes or a case of Graves' disease, resulting in a goiterous gaze to chill our blood. But then, how else does one stay married to America's cockiest playwright?
Mamet has opened up the play, which allows for interesting re-creations of Parliament in session, but also diminishes the tension Rattigan achieved by keeping everything within four -- or three -- walls. There is superior cinematography from the French cameraman Benoît Delhomme, who had the felicitous idea of selling Mamet on a volume of reproductions of John Singer Sargent paintings; Sargent's palette and use of light suit The Winslow Boy to a tee. It is, but for Miss Pidgeon, an eminently watchable film, and even that young Guy Edwards, in the title part, has something slightly ambiguous about him adds a not unwelcome note of uncertainty to the somewhat predictable proceedings.
Shakespeare has had good times and bad times on film, and now that a movie he starred in won the Oscar, his services will doubtless be even more in demand. So we get a remake of A Midsummer Night's Dream by the director Michael Hoffman, who also gets credit for a screenplay whose words are all Shakespeare's.
Those who have seen Max Reinhardt's classic black-and-white version of 1935, and Peter Hall's colored one of 1968, may wonder if a third go was really necessary. But then, this is one of the most popular plays in the canon, and Hoffman's track record, which includes One Fine Day and Restoration, could use a boost.
And, touchingly, ever since the director, in a college production in Boise, played Lysander, he has been dreaming of making this movie.
Hoffman also loves Italy, and decided to shoot his film in the town of Montepulciano, around the Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola, at the Villa d'Este, and on the Cinecittà sound stages in Rome. To justify the Italian settings, he invented a town called Porto (or was it Monte?) Atena, but the play's constant references to Athens sound none the more persuasive. Even the Greekish character names clash with the Italian ambience. Further, the excellent production designer Luciana Arrighi, aware that scholars consider the fairies transmogrified pre-Christian deities, had them inhabit a ruined Etruscan temple, which, popping up in the quasi-Athenian woods, adds to our disorientation.
Take, on top of that, Hoffman's loony notion that because the bicycle was a novelty in the late 19th century, the lovers should escape to the enchanted woods on period bicycles. This becomes even more ridiculous when Puck swipes one of their bikes to circle the globe in record time, though on such a bike even Phileas Fogg would have needed more than 80 days. Stanley Tucci, an over-age and rather inept Puck, probably couldn't have made much headway with a ten-speed Schwinn. But his goat ears and kid (as in baby goat) hornlets are cute as a button or two.
David Strathairn feels ill at ease as Theseus, an Italian duke; as his feminist fiancée Hippolyta, Sophie Marceau is colorless. Dominic West is a good but somewhat bumpkinish Lysander, Christian Bale a rather stiff Demetrius, Calista Flockhart a sedulous Helena, and Anna Friel a letter-perfect Hermia. The good but essentially comic Rupert Everett is miscast as Oberon, but the big disaster is Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania. Looking lovelier than ever, she has no idea of how to read Shakespearean verse, but will no doubt garner raves.
The mechanicals are an even more motley crew than Shakespeare devised, with the able Bill Irwin and Max Wright making disappointing contributions. Roger Rees is fine as Peter Quince, trying desperately to cope, but Kevin Kline, a fine actor when controlled, goes over the top as Bottom. Still, whereas lesser hams are all ego and the hell with the part, Kline's problem is trying to get more out of it than is there. It was a good idea not to give him a full ass's head but only donkey makeup; the full ass's head belongs rightly to the director.
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