The first film in which I saw Jeremy Northam perform was The Winslow Boy (dir. David Mamet, 1999). The film, and Jeremy’s performance, made a deep impression on me, so I was inspired to find out more about the very special actor I’d just seen, and the play on which the film was based.
David Mamet crafted a pitch perfect film, but I discovered it was thanks to the skill of one of the twentieth century’s leading dramatists, Sir Terence Rattigan, that he was able to do so. And of course, I also found that David Mamet’s Winslow Boy was not the first film version to be made.
This year is the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s birth, and theatre-goers have been provided with plenty of his work to enjoy. The Chichester Festival, for example, which is currently taking place, has a wonderful programme of plays and events. You can find out more about it (and all the centenary events) by visiting TerenceRattigan.com.
Interestingly, The Winslow Boy was originally intended to be a film, not a play. Rattigan had been working as a screenwriter for the RAF Film Unit during World War II. His producer, Anatole de Grunwald, suggested (knowing Rattigan’s penchant for collecting books about famous court cases) that he write a screenplay exploring the British Justice system. Rattigan had already earmarked the Archer-Shee case for just such a purpose. In 1946, instead of a screenplay, it became The Winslow Boy: a play for the theatre (de Grunwald had thought the case too dull to work on screen). Those of you who like ‘Jeremy links’ will enjoy knowing it was written, consciously, in the style of Harley Granville-Barker (author of The Voysey Inheritance, in which Jeremy played Edward Voysey at the National Theatre in 1990, winning an Olivier) to aid in its evocation of the Edwardian period.
Thirteen year old George Archer-Shee was at Osbourne Naval College when he was accused of stealing a 5/- postal order from another cadet. After his expulsion, and convinced of his innocence, the Archer-Shee family engaged renowned barrister Edward Carson to take action against the Admiralty. This involved requesting a Petition of Right from the king who, traditionally, would sign it and write on the document ‘Let Right be Done’. The navy successfully challenged the petition, but the family appealed and won the right to have a trial, which quickly became a cause celebre. Edward Carson was said to have wept at the trial’s successful conclusion.
If you’ve seen the play or film adaptations, this will all sound very familiar. In all but name, the play follows the case of George Archer-Shee fairly accurately, though Rattigan ‘plays’ with the politics somewhat, making the conservative Archer-Shee daughter into suffragette Catherine Winslow. Edward Carson becomes Sir Robert Morton. De Grunwald may have thought it a dull idea for a screenplay, but on stage it was a success. It ran in London for over a year, winning an Ellen Terry award for best play; and in America, it won the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.
You may remember author Alec Nevala-Lee’s insightful post about David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy and its memorable curtain line. Alec said, ‘The greatest curtain line in movie history, as far as I’m concerned, comes at the end of David Mamet’s 1999 film version of The Winslow Boy.’ Alec wasn’t completely certain who had written it (Mamet or Rattigan) and neither was I. I developed a minor obsession with finding out! All I knew for certain was it wasn’t in the play, which ends with Morton asking Catherine if he will see her in the House one day, to which she replies, ‘perhaps’, and that it will not be in the Gallery, but across the floor. Morton repeats her ‘perhaps’, bids her goodbye and leaves. I was very interested to read that Rattigan was pressured to add a romantic element at the play’s conclusion for American audiences. He refused. So where did the romantic element originate?
Off I went in search of a copy of the original film version, made in 1948 and starring the sublime Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton, Margaret Leighton as Catherine Winslow, and Cedric Hardwicke as Arthur Winslow. Anatole de Grunwald and Terence Rattigan provided the screenplay and Anthony Asquith directed. What I saw was definitely from the same source, but was a very different film to David Mamet’s.
In 1948, Robert Donat was a tremendously successful and highly regarded star of stage and screen, and his version of the story reflects his star status. Even though Donat as Morton doesn’t appear until about half way through the film, from the moment he does, it’s all about him. Donat was a very elegant, gifted, extremely charismatic actor, with one of the loveliest voices ever heard on film. His Morton is a man passionate about the law, a passion he hides beneath a rather stiff, sardonic facade.
The original play is staged entirely in the Winslow’s house, but the film fleshes out the story and adds extra scenes (including some of the trial). There is much that is familiar to those of us who know the 1999 film well, but this film uses a more expansive canvas.
Donat is magnificent, and he is ably supported by the rest of the cast. But is there any romance between Catherine and Morton? Margaret Leighton’s Catherine is a suffragette, but a much softer interpretation of the role than that of Rebecca Pidgeon. There are obvious hints at a possible romance almost from the moment they meet (as you would expect of a film made at this time). We can see Catherine is interested despite herself. Pidgeon’s Catherine never shows her feelings so obviously.
But what about the curtain line? Was it there in 1948?
So, we’ve narrowed it down to either Rattigan or de Grunwald as the curtain line’s author. If anyone knows which of them, for certain, please let me know! As you’ll see, the curtain line is used and played in a rather different way, and we do not have a sudden and delightful realisation, as we do in our beloved Mamet film. Rather, we lead up to it. The exchange about Morton weeping is far more significant here too. Just watch Robert Donat’s beautifully expressive face.
You might also ponder, as I have found myself doing, on the similarities between the two actors who have played Sir Robert. There was a spooky moment when I saw Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton for the first time. I know the cast of the 1999 film would not have been consciously influenced by the 1948 version, but both actors, Donat and Northam, gave independent life to Morton so successfully that, seeing him there in front of me, the very same man but so many years earlier, was a little unnerving. If you watch both films, let me know what you think.
Which Winslow Boy do I prefer? Impossible to say because they are so very different and both so very good. Both are adaptations of the source from very different writers and directors, and in very different times. I will always love (and be thankful to) the 1999 version; because it introduced me to my favourite actor, and because the final line and the way it is delivered is a masterstroke that I enjoy every time I watch it. I love the 1948 version because there are few actors, even now, who can equal Robert Donat on screen. It is The Winslow Boy writ large. How can I choose when they both include Sir Robert Morton? It is a gift of a role and an irresistible character: who wouldn’t respond to a man with a hidden passionate heart who would give up fame and fortune for what is right?
Terence Rattigan, sadly, didn’t live to see the 1999 film adaptation of his play. I wonder what he would have made of it …?
If you enjoyed this post and would like to find out more about Robert Donat, who played the first screen Sir Robert Morton, please visit my other actor blog (co-run by Jenny The Nipper): Robert Donat.