Trials, Masks and the Catskills

By Cunneen, Joseph | National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Trials, Masks and the Catskills

Cunneen, Joseph, National Catholic Reporter

Three off-beat films tell universal stories with style

The Winslow Boy (Sony Pictures Classics) seems a most unlikely project for David Mamet; instead of the abusive exchanges of criminals we hear the mannered upper-class speech of 1910 Britons. The news is as good as it is surprising: Mamet's screenplay brings out the strengths of Terence Rattigan's 1946 play, and his carefully controlled direction makes its isolated moments of revelation all the more powerful.

The play was based on a famous trial involving a 13-year-old cadet at the Osborne naval academy accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. After the boy was sent home from the academy in disgrace, his father insisted on carrying the case to the highest legal authority in order to exonerate him. The financial expense was prohibitive, but the emotional cost to the entire family was even greater.

The material may have appealed to Mamet because it avoids conventional courtroom theatrics, and the director successfully imposes an appropriate style on his distinguished cast. Understatement and ambiguity leave us responsive to the smallest shadings of emphasis. As the family is introduced at the outset, we might believe that Arthur Winslow, the stem father (Nigel Hawthorne), will be incapable of dealing calmly with a son denounced by authority, or that suffragist daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) is too full of ideas to have deep personal feelings.

When young Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) finally has a one-on-one interview with his father, however, the latter quickly accepts his son's claim to innocence and dedicates the family fortune to righting what he perceives as a profound injustice.

As for Catherine, she conceals her feelings under her intelligence and wit and abandons a suitor she genuinely cares for when the case becomes such a challenge to authority that her fiance's father makes marriage impossible. She becomes even more sympathetic when she recognizes that she has misjudged Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), the suave barrister whom she had first believed took on her brother's case only for the huge fee.

Mamet's disciplined production becomes powerfully involving without ever trying to prove anything. We are not asked to accept the British judicial system uncritically and may occasionally wonder whether father and daughter have adequately weighed the cost of their efforts. Nigel Hawthorne's combination of irony and authority is especially notable; the entire cast is excellent.

"The Winslow Boy" profits from the handsome, mostly interior photography of Benoit Delhomme. The audience is not manipulated but treated as adults; instead of adolescent postures of passion, the sparring between Jeremy Northam and Rebecca Pidgeon provides the pleasure of watching two young people discover the real worth of each other.

Avoiding sensationalism, "The Winslow Boy" makes you realize you're in the hands of professionals; all you need do is sit back and watch closely as they show their craft.

The King of Masks (Samuel Goldwyn Films) is a Chinese film with an exotic setting (Sichuan in 1930) and a universal story. Bianlian Wang, its title character (Xu Zhu), is an aging street performer eager to pass on his sleight-of-hand skills to a male heir.

Doggie (Zhou Renying), the 8-year-old child he buys at a back alley black market, responds affectionately to Wang's instinctive kindness and colorful folk-sayings. Their life on a crude houseboat, which they share with Turkey, the magician's trained monkey, seems almost idyllic, especially after Doggie becomes proficient at scratching Wang's back.

Director Tian-Ming Wu has a serious theme to accompany the comedy of this master-disciple relationship: the indifference and cruelty shown to Chinese girls. When Wang discovers that Doggie is not a boy, he wants nothing more to do with her; even after he relents and allows her to remain on the houseboat, he insists that she is only a servant and must call him Boss instead of Grandfather.

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