This movie is glorious. Better than that – sublime.
This is Robert Donat at his most brilliant, combining the cool with the sympathetic. It is the story of the exhaustion – the rank physical destruction – that can be done on the people who care in a court battle. It is about the price paid by the gentle and the decent to ensure that right is done. Not justice, but right. Terrific. Donat comes very close to making it romantic.
Old Jack here adores this film. And if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for an emotional delight. We meet the Winslows just as the father, Sir Cedric Hardwicke‘s Arthur, comes home to a pleasant retirement from the bank. It’s 1912. He has a touch of arthritis that, all praise to Hardwicke, takes him to a stick and a wheelchair as the next two, cruel years play out. He is as English as it gets, rumpled, dignified and gruff, but, like all the oldsters who ever stood up for what they believed, exudes sympathy and practical warmth. Forty years later, these same characteristics would come from his son Edward Hardwicke‘s Doctor Watson.
Arthur has a loving family: marriageable daughter Margaret Leighton as suffragist Catherine, Marie Lohr as understanding but ultimately tortured wife Grace, the lanky and off-handedly posh Jack Watling as son Dickie, and – most plot-drivingly of all – Neil North as the tirribly-tirribly accented young Ronnie. He of the Naval Academy, banishment for theft of a postal order, and honest face. North, who popped up in the 1999 remake after a life spent technically on the run, convinces his father of his innocence of this crime – and we, like Arthur, don’t doubt it. The Boy, tellingly enough, is the only one not hurt by the oncoming storm as Hardwicke refuses to accept the dismissal of his son without fair trial and – in an early confrontation with the college – determines to fight them.
Forty minutes into the piece, the issue, the family tensions and the stakes well described, money already running short, and Robert Donat pitches up as barrister-extraordinaire, Sir Robert Morton. His first scene, ten minutes that fly by, is a flash of talent and cross-examination in a drawing-room. Old Jack here gripped the arms of my chair until they creaked, as Donat interrogated the Boy, looking to decide whether he will represent him. Brilliant stuff – he picks holes in the Boy’s story: his motives, his reasoning, his excuses and slip-ups in the telling. North gives good innocence, and you’re tense because you believe in him and this smart-alec bully. The family look on in horror as Ronnie is taken apart, but his passion wins through. This and his resistance to admit lesser crimes suggested by Morton brings us to the barrister’s acceptance of the case, “the boy is plainly innocent”. Huzzah!
I imagine that’s where the interval fell in the original stage play. And it is worth pausing to see the vulnerable family, a retired old father prepared to risk everything for his ultimately indifferent son. We see daughter Catherine moving towards an engagement, Arthur taking to a walking stick, son Dickie on the road to being bundled out of Oxford (he dances to his record player in the drawing-room – inevitable downfall!). A father has a choice not often recognised, and The Winslow Boy plays it out beautifully, for to define the moral framework of a family must mean doing something when it’s challenged.
The second half of the film marches us into Parliament and then into court, with scenes not in the stage version. The strain destroying Arthur also takes its toll – professional and physical – on Donat’s Morton. Letting “right be done” hurts the family to the point that Arthur gifts the decision to continue to Catherine. For her engagement is put at risk by, of all things, Stanley Holloway doing a musical turn at the theatre.
Donat, as you’d expect and Grandpa Gus adored, plays the cold fish barrister with an undertow of accessible decency. There’s a dash of romance in his moral certitude and willingness to showboat in Parliament and court. There’s a scary moment when – betraying his own frailty – there’s a wheeze in his breath. Given the asthma that wrecked Donat’s real life, I always find this moment unsettling.
Hardwicke is the heart of the film, the guardian of the Boy as it were. He balances Donat’s posh showiness with a middle-class kindness. It is a surprise to like him so much, given how he treats Dickie and sacrifices the happiness around him, but that’s testimony to Hardwicke’s skill.
Margaret Leighton takes the eye third. She is her father’s daughter, quite sharp, set on right, and a martyr to the cause. Fancy hair and a domestic suffragist, she deals with good and bad luck in equal measure and you – again – are surprised to like her. That her final scene is on the receiving end of a gentleman’s flirting, cigarettes in archaic hands, makes a winner of at least one member of the Winslow tribe. Oh – and there’s a sadness in real life – for the duo in that scene, Donat and Leighton, both died in their 53rd year. Sobering and unkind, real life.
The bit parts fill out the film with familiarity. Top of the potential-caricature list is the family maid, with them twenty-five years and nearly sacrificed on the family finances. Kathleen Harrison – you’ll know her as soon as you see her – is Violet. Old Jack here isn’t sure of her range…but she lived to 103 and surfed the lifetime of the British film industry with other Violet-types (Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, Scrooge, and a crowd of Huggetts if you fancy a few classics). She’s a “Cor Blimey” short of “Mr ‘Olmes”, but, really, The Winslow Boy loves its film royalty from tip to tail.
As anyone who’s tried will tell you, from parent to grandparent and beyond, doing the right thing is difficult. It eats you up and those you love. It wrecks life and pushes you along a plank, tempting you to run back to the ship given financial or emotional costs. The Winslow Boy shows us this with wit and style – whilst not ignoring the callousness of youth, the Boy himself having joined another school and forgotten even the day of the verdict. Cool eye, Rattigan.
The best lines are the last ones. Wait for them.