“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?” asks Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour. “Did she die in vain?” Those in need of a refresher as to what the thirteenth-century bill of rights – the closest thing Britain has to a Constitution – actually means are encouraged to watch The Winslow Boy, reissued today on Blu-Ray by StudioCanal. Based on Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, it fictionalises the case of George Archer-Shee, a fifteen-year-old dismissed without trial from the Royal Naval College after being falsely accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. From this small crime, an enormous legal precedent grew; that no institution, not even the military, can refuse a British citizen their Magna Carta-guaranteed right to a fair trial.
When the play was adapted for film, Anthony Asquith was the only choice to direct. He had a close friendship with Rattigan and had adapted his work four times since 1940’s French Without Tears. Moreover, he had a unique qualification to handle a story about British politics. Asquith was the son of Herbert Henry Asquith, British Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916 – the period The Winslow Boy is set in. There is a moment when a character makes an offhand reference to one of the Prime Minister’s speeches, and it is very strange to think that’s the director giving a shout-out to his dad.
Asquith was second only to Hitchcock as Britain’s great director of the silent era, and The Winslow Boy is full of the visual craft you’d expect. It’s a million miles away from the noir expressionism of the crime movies America was producing at the time, but there’s a dynamic quality to his Academy-ratio compositions that keeps the film energetic even when it gets deep into legal proceedings. The performances are lively as well, particularly the young cast members. Neil North is remarkably empathetic and genuine as the accused Ronnie Winslow, while Jack Watling and Margaret Leighton give the film a shot of adrenaline as Ronnie’s older siblings Dickie and Catherine, depicted as a giddy carouser and an ardent Suffragette respectively.
The characterisation of the older Winslow children is one of Rattigan’s inventions. He also decided the drama would be more effective if the Winslows were poorer than their real-life inspirations – although a look at the lavish set for their home, captured by David Lean’s regular cinematographer Freddie Young, does remind you that we’re some way off from Cathy Come Home at this point. Still, the message comes through clearly. The Winslows’ terribly proper, waistcoat-wearing father, played by Cedric Hardwicke, is stunned to discover the establishment could betray his son so utterly. His daughter, by contrast, refuses to believe the establishment might correct their mistake. Had Rattigan made the Winslows the victims of anti-Catholic bigotry, as some suspect the Archer-Shees were, Catherine’s suspicion might have carried extra weight. In the absence of that issue, father and daughter’s world-views are on a level playing field, and The Winslow Boy becomes a story about that most unfashionable of notions – compromise.
Even at this polarised historical moment, it still has the power to convince. Asquith really believes in the power of the system to work for ordinary people, and his cast sell it. But the vessel for this compromise is an unusual one. It’s Robert Donat as Sir Robert Morton, a lawyer based on Sir Edward Carson, the Dublin-born barrister who defended Archer-Shee. Arriving on the scene 44 minutes in, he cuts the strangest figure among movie lawyers. He’s not a Billy Flynn-like shyster, but he keeps any Atticus Finch-esque campaigning zeal well hidden. On his first meeting with the Winslows, he reduces Ronnie to tears with his relentless questioning, then suddenly – shockingly – declares he’s fully convinced of the boy’s innocence and will be glad to represent him.
Rattigan’s play refused to show the actual trial, but Asquith gets right in there with barnstorming debates between Donat and his rotund opposite number. What The Winslow Boy doesn’t have, which later became a staple of the courtroom drama, is a judge’s summation. Instead, it reveals the verdict to us as the Winslows learn of it, which is the film’s approach in a nutshell: a big story told with intimacy and lots of attention to character. Three short but essential extras see Matthew Sweet, Geoffrey Wansell and Gareth McGuffie filling in important context on the film’s history, Rattigan’s work and the Archer-Shee case respectively.