Antony Asquith (director)
03 February 2020 (released)
03 February 2020
This 1948 film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s famous play very much reflects the manners and codes of conduct of its day – a world almost alien to 21st century folk though of course, the question of class divide and upper middle class attitudes still prevails to this day.
Overlooking this stuffy, stiff upper lip behavior (not terribly easy), nonetheless we have a not altogether uninteresting story line for those who care about such things. Irksome little Public School pain Ronnie Winslow (Neil North), a trainee cadet, has been expelled from Osborne Naval College without a fair trial… apparently for forging the signature of another boy on a 5-shilling postal order (25 pence) and cashing it at the local post office. I say! Ronnie swears he is innocent. However, the odds against him are absolutely overwhelming in fact almost to the point of absurdism (theatrical license?). His father, Arthur Winslow (the invariably grim Sir Cedric Hardwicke), a reasonably well off bank employee, manages to secure the services of the no less a personage than the absolutely brilliant advocate Sir Robert Morton (the great 'voice' actor Robert Donat) who is also a leading politician who appears to be seated on the Labour side of the house (if only Corbyn had possessed an iota of Sir Robert's extraordinary oratory skills). Despite the fact that the Winslows’ can afford a maid (Kathleen Harrison, a ubiquitous actress who specialized in working class skivvy roles and, like a pint of Guinness, was an acquired taste), employing Morton’s services doesn’t come cheap. After tearing the boy verbally to shreds in front of his family Morton announces (yes, we can see it coming) that the boy is definitely innocent and he will take the case.
This of course is a very difficult case to get a hearing in view of the circumstances and Sir Robert has to pull a few strings in order to see that 'right will be done'. Fortunately this has always been the case in England – or has it? Does anyone believe that another barrister could get the better of Robert Donat (a near brilliant verse speaker to boot), well, certainly not a corpulent mass like the Attorney General (Francis L. Sullivan, best known as Mr. Bumble in Lean's ‘Oliver Twist’). As if things in the courtroom weren’t tricky enough already, the domestic situation back home in the Winslow household isn’t exactly smooth sailing either. Daughter Catherine (Margaret Leighton) is engaged to John Weatherstone (Frank Lawton) whose father throws an ultimatum at him: either the Winslows drop the embarrassing case or Mr. Weatherstone will see to it that son John and proposed fiancée Catherine lose their marriage settlement! Meanwhile, Dickie Winslow (Jack Watling) is forced to leave expensive Oxford College so his dad can afford barrister Sir Robert. That said, Dickie doesn’t mind too much, seeing how his true passion lies in practicing the latest dance steps and listening to his beloved horn gramophone.
The author of the play, Terence Rattigan (who wrote the screenplay with Anatole De Grunwald), is considered by many to be one of the greatest British playwrights of the 20th century. To some in this day and age this might appear almost laughable with the advent of the likes of John Osborne and Harold Pinter (who were almost twenty years younger than Rattigan but it could easily have been sixty or seventy). Rattigan was an upper class man writing extremely well crafted plays for a 'rigid' 1930/40's audience. His works (and this one in particular) have not aged well, unlike Noel Coward's with his overlay of puckish humor or timeless genius's like George Bernard Shaw. By nowadays standards it might be a trifle difficult to take this 'cause celebre' (very much Rattigan's era) seriously, especially where characters begin sentences with “I say…” and chaps who refer to their younger brothers as “Old man”; although with our present political climate it appears that quite a few have a yearning to return to these 'good old days'. Jacob Rees-Mogg, anyone?
This piece may well work better on stage and in fact it is still in repertoire - heaven knows why. It was even remade in 1999 with James Northam in the part of Barrister Morton. We have a very 'distinguished' team involved here: the director, Antony Asquith, was a real aristo (the son of Herbert Asquith who was the Prime Minister of England) and producer/co-writer Anatole de Grunwald was the son of a high ranking Russian diplomat forced to leave Russia for obvious reasons. The film, however, does have Robert Donat in the lead and this in itself makes it worthwhile. A great pity we lost this always worthy actor at such a relatively young age. We have a number of old stagers in supporting roles including the likes of Cyril Raymond and Stanley Holloway both doing their Music Hall turns. The willowy Margaret Leighton shines as Ronnie's elder sister Catherine, who surely should be too intelligent to be involved in a relationship with the shallow and hypocritical next-door neighbor John. Last but not least we have cheery old character actor Basil Radford taking on the role of family friend and solicitor Desmond Curry.
THE WINSLOW BOY has been fully restored and is available for the first time on Blu-ray, with additional Bonus Features.