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No one has ever suggested that David Mamet, the contemporary bard of blue-collar inarticulateness, might have made an exemplary Edwardian; the rancor and profanity of his trademark dialogue would echo awkwardly in a proper drawing room. Yet the playwright and filmmaker delights in intrigues, enigmas, and the myriad ways that people don’t say (or know) what they mean. Mamet’s taste for ambiguity and aphasia makes him a surprisingly suitable adapter for Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, written in 1946 but set in the years just before World War I. That period proves a much more conducive era for secrets and lies than the modern setting of Mamet’s last film, The Spanish Prisoner. Indeed, The Winslow Boy turns out to be Mamet’s most satisfying film since his 1987 debut, House of Games.
Rattigan and Mamet would seem to have little in common. The former wrote his best-known plays before the Angry Young Men unsettled British drama, specializing in tales of strong but politely sequestered emotions like The Browning Version. (That play was filmed in 1951 and again in 1994, the latter by Mike Figgis.) In The Winslow Boy, based by Rattigan on the true story of George Archer-Shee, the conflict is between justice and decorum, with a subplot of buried erotic attraction. Thirteen-year-old naval cadet Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) is expelled from school for stealing a postal money order. When Ronnie insists to his father, Arthur (Nigel Hawthorne), that he is innocent, the family begins a potentially ruinous battle to clear him.
Arthur neglects his banking position and spends the family fortune in his quest, while Ronnie’s older sister, Cate (Rebecca Pidgeon), brings to her brother’s case the zeal she previously exerted in the cause of women’s suffrage. In the process, Cate risks losing her fiancé, the solid and reliable if rather dull John Watherstone (Aden Gillett). Ronnie’s mother, Grace (Gemma Jones), and his older brother, Dickie (Matthew
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Pidgeon), are less passionately devoted to the case, but they’re both affected by the family’s growing controversy and dwindling wealth.
The struggle to exonerate Ronnie threatens Cate’s marriage plans, yet it also brings her into contact with two possible new suitors, family attorney Desmond Curry (Colin Stinton), a longtime admirer, and legal superstar Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), who takes Ronnie’s case to the House of Lords. Morton, in classic old-time-romance style, is both antithetical and overwhelmingly appealing to Cate. The prosecutor of a prominent labor activist, he smugly disdains suffragettism. (Winning the vote for women is described as “a hopeless cause”just like, of course, Ronnie’s.) Cate, in turn, describes Morton as “an avaricious, conniving, unfeeling man”irrefutable evidence, in this sort of heirloom drama, that she’s madly in love with him.
Mamet has said that he thought about adapting The Winslow Boy for years, but it seems likely that his marriage to Pidgeon reawakened his interest. The role of Cate is ideal for her brittle, mannered style, which seemed nearly a century off in The Spanish Prisoner. The coyness that was fatal to that film is much more persuasive in the context of tightly laced early-20th-century England, although Mamet’s withholding of information does still occasionally seem more a mania that a dramatic device.
Although the period serves the performances well, The Winslow Boy has no more intention of realistically depicting historical Britain than did Emma, the last film in which Northam played an English aristocrat. If the limited locations never suggest London, it’s because the movie was shot in Massachusetts, and if the compositions look as if they should be surrounded by gilded frames, it’s because the film’s visual style was modeled on the paintings of John Singer Sargent by French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (best known for shooting Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo and Cé#dric Klapisch’s When the Cat’s Away). The parable of Arthur Winslow may seem to be about the price of justice, but for Mamet the artifice’s the thing.
Writer-director Tony Bui’s Three Seasons is pitched as the first American film shot in Vietnam since the war, but it’s not as unprecedented as all that; Bui’s first feature strongly suggests the second French film shot in Vietnam since the war, 1995’s Cyclo. Bui (who grew up in suburban California) and Tran Anh Hung (who grew up in Paris) are young Vietnamese expatriates who were struck by similar sorts of street characters during their visits to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City), the city they never really knew as children. Thus both films are populated by prostitutes, drivers of cyclos (bicycle-powered rickshaws), and other people in professions that cater to foreign visitors, and both are visually ravishing. Still, the two movies are very different in outlook.
A multiple-award winner at Sundance, Three Seasons evokes the intoxication Bui felt upon arriving in his lost country. Although most of the characters make a hard-won livelihood on the street, they display extraordinary empathy and live in a world of enchantment. Pretty hooker Lan (Zoë Bui), weary cyclo driver Hai (Don Duong), sorrowful flower-seller Kien An (Nguyen Ngoc Hiep), and homeless Woody, the kid who sells watches and gum on the street (Nguyen Huu Duoc), all lead rugged lives, yet each can be transported by a simple pleasure: a colorful bloom, a song remembered from childhood, an old Clint Eastwood movie. To Bui, Vietnamese life is occasionally brutal, yet more beautiful than the American alternative.
Despite its title, the film seems to depict only two seasons, which is all that most subtropical Asian regions offer: Woody sloshes through a continual downpour, while the other characters live in a hot, humid, but rain-free clime. What does come in a set of three is the narrative: Hai falls in love with Lan and insists on cycling her home every evening while dreaming of ways to raise the $50 she charges for her services. Kien An befriends the leader of a lotus-flower operation, Dao (Tran Manh Cuong), an elderly philosopher-poet who has lived in seclusion for decades because of a disfiguring disease. Woody becomes friendly with James (Harvey Keitel), a former Marine who’s returned to Vietnam to brood Keitelishly and find the daughter he never knew.
Of these central characters, only Woody seems to have crass commercial motivation. The others are soulful and sensitivea little more sensitive than might be expected of people struggling to survive in a world where, as Lan laments, “we live in the shadows” of wealthy Westerners. Kien An wants to help Dao get his poetic memories on paper. James wants to do right by the daughter he abandoned when he was a young soldier. Hai wants to restore Lan’s schoolgirl innocence and sense of wonder (and doesn’t even plan to have sex with her). Even Woody is ultimately provided with a soulmate, a homeless girl who wordlessly becomes his surrogate little sister. As if to emphasize the contrivance of these wish-fulfillment fables, the central characters overlap toward the film’s conclusion, although not in a way that dramatically affects any of them.
Bui fails to adequately convey his fascination with his rediscovered homeland, but his associates almost succeed in doing it for him. Composer Richard Horowitz, a world-beat veteran whose scoring credits include The Sheltering Sky, conjures the delicacy of traditional Vietnamese music, while versatile cinematographer Lisa Rinzler (Lisbon Story, Menace II Society) pictures a Vietnam that’s alternately grimly urban and lushly rural, illuminated with equal allure by sunlight or neon. You probably won’t believe in Bui’s sainted characters, but you still might be beguiled by his beloved country. CP