Posted by: Robin | April 24, 2008

“Let Right Be Done”

I just finished watching David Mamet’s “The Winslow Boy.” It is the story of a boy (Guy Edwards) in his early teens who gets expelled from the British Naval College for stealing a five shilling postal order and cashing it. The boy swears to his family that he is innocent, and they believe him. His father (movingly played by Nigel Hawthorne) takes up the cause to clear his son’s name, with the active support of his only daughter Catherine.

The family comes close to beggaring itself to hire the best barrister available (Jeremy Northam), and Catherine and Ronnie’s older brother Dickie both suffer major personal losses in their future prospects, all to clear young Ronnie’s name. What that will require is no less than suing the Crown itself, an unprecedented act. Catherine insists that the fight continue because it is right. The phrase “Let right be done” is coined, and it is taken up as a rallying cry throughout the UK as people see the boy’s case as a David vs. Goliath battle.

Interestingly the boy is the least concerned about this crusade. He continues to declare his innocence, but he is settled in a new school happily enough. Throughout the adults around him care passionately about what is happening but conduct themselves in understated ways that seem so at odds with the toll it is taking on each of them. The well-acted, well-written script and the pace kept me involved. Rebecca Pigeon’s character Catherine (a beautifully restrained performance) proved the center of gravity for the film, but Mamet keeps his audience from the dramatic moments. The movie is almost entirely a series of quiet conversations.

Two-thirds of the way through I began to agree with the mother (Gemma Jones) who asked the point of their sacrifice, in her view for her husband’s pride’s sake. Ronnie was happy and doing well where he was. No one would have known about the incident if the father had not insisted on taking the matter public, and now their entire quality of life had been reduced. Then I realized that the audience’s emotional investment in the trial had been neutralized for a purpose: what motivates our choices? Do we champion a cause because of its consequences or because it is right? Do we champion a cause because it engages our passions or because it is right? Do we do it for what it will gain us, or because it is right? And if for right, is any cost too great?

Setting a precedent that right should be measured by what it will cost us is a silent thief that will rob us in ways we can’t imagine. I would have thought I agreed with that premise, but Mamet revealed my hypocrisy when Mrs. Winslow questioned the motivations and cost of insisting the world know that their son had been treated unjustly without due process, and I was right there with her. I won’t give away the outcome, but the way Mr. Winslow and Catherine discover the verdict is so anticlimactic in the most perfect way. “Let right be done.” Such a seemingly simple statement, but so very deceptive. One can never know where it will lead, but does it matter?

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