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  Winslow Boy, The Do It RightBuy this film here.
Year: 1948
Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: Robert Donat, Cedric Hardwicke, Basil Radford, Margaret Leighton, Kathleen Harrison, Frances L. Sullivan, Marie Lohr, Jack Watling, Walter Fitzgerald, Frank Lawton, Neil North, Nicholas Hannen, Hugh Dempster, Evelyn Roberts, W.A. Kelley, Stanley Holloway
Genre: Drama
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Arthur Winslow (Cedric Hardwicke) is a middle-class banker in Edwardian London who has had to give up work against his wishes thanks to his arthritis. However, he has been successful enough to make life comfortable for himself and his family and has funded his eldest son's Oxford tutoring and his youngest son's entry into the Naval cadets. The oldest, Dickie (Jack Watling) is something of a wastrel, relying on his father's money to see him through, but the youngest, Ronnie (Neil North), has a fine and upstanding character and Arthur has high hopes for him. His daughter Kate (Margaret Leighton) looks set to marry, and all is well. Until Ronnie is expelled for committing petty crime...

Ronnie says he never did such a thing, but the Navy said he did, so who is Winslow going to believe, his son or the Navy? Since denying the military would be to go against the King himself, it takes a brave man to counter this conviction, but Winslow has such faith in his boy that there is no way he will betray his trust in him, and so begins a long legal battle over what seems like pretty small beer, yet escalates to take in the Navy top brass, the Houses of Parliament, and calls into question the infallibility of the monarch. And the remarkable thing was, this was based on a true story, adapted for the stage by one time darling of the British theatre Terence Rattigan, who also did the script.

With assistance from Anatole de Grunwald, he opened out the play which had taken place entirely in the Winslows' sitting room, so we could now see Parliament, the courtroom and even interludes at the music hall with cameos from Cyril Ritchard and Stanley Holloway. This was a canny move, and crucially did not betray either Rattigan's source material nor the actual events, though of course they were embellished from the facts; nevertheless, they were true to the spirit of the events (they missed out the tragedy that once the case was over, Ronnie - actually George Archer-Shee - was recruited into the Army and was sadly killed in the First World War not too long afterwards).

Back at the film, The Winslow Boy was to the British cinema what the play had been to the nation's stage, a prestige production written by its most lauded young playwright, Rattigan, and directed by its most respectable talent, Anthony Asquith. What was interesting about both of them was the vertiginous drop in their standing once the Angry Young Men arrived in the mid-nineteen-fifties: basically, establishment figures like those two (Asquith was the son of a Prime Minister!) were precisely who those angry blokes were angry about. Almost overnight, their oeuvre was consigned to the ghetto of stuffy, old fashioned and utterly past it, something for little old ladies to watch at matinees rather than the younger generation to get excited about, a genuine revolution in the arts and the culture.

What was ironic about that, especially in light of how much grumbling Rattigan would do about the usurpers to his esteem, was The Winslow Boy played out as a deeply anti-establishment piece, it was just that the threats to an unfair status quo were not hailing from any working class warriors, but a decidedly posh bunch with the cut glass accents to match. It was a curious experience, for we are never in any doubt the Winslows are in the right, and the might of the entire British authority is forcing them to surrender, but their chief weapons are a peculiarly stoic belief in their fight born of the British personality, which could go either way, really, and one of the Members of Parliament who happens to be a barrister, top-billed Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton. He was his usual impeccable self, and when he drew himself up in righteous fury you worried for the actor's famously fragile health, yet this "changing the system from within" made for a film a lot more subversive than it appeared on the surface. Its unshakeable belief in justice, that right will prevail, was by no means a certainty, and created strong drama. Music by William Alwyn.

[Studio Canal release this on Blu-ray with these features:

George Arthur-Shee and the case of the missing postal order
Interview with cultural historian Matthew Sweet
Interview with Geoffery Wansell, author and critic
Stills gallery.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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