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At the movies

Trials, Masks and the Catskills


The Winslow Boy (Sony Pictures Classics) seems a most unlikely project for David Mamet; instead of the abusive exchanges of criminals we hear the mannered upper-class speech of 1910 Britons. The news is as good as it is surprising: Mamet’s screenplay brings out the strengths of Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, and his carefully controlled direction makes its isolated moments of revelation all the more powerful.

The play was based on a famous trial involving a 13-year-old cadet at the Osborne naval academy accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. After the boy was sent home from the academy in disgrace, his father insisted on carrying the case to the highest legal authority in order to exonerate him. The financial expense was prohibitive, but the emotional cost to the entire family was even greater.

The material may have appealed to Mamet because it avoids conventional courtroom theatrics, and the director successfully imposes an appropriate style on his distinguished cast. Understatement and ambiguity leave us responsive to the smallest shadings of emphasis. As the family is introduced at the outset, we might believe that Arthur Winslow, the stern father (Nigel Hawthorne), will be incapable of dealing calmly with a son denounced by authority, or that suffragist daughter Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) is too full of ideas to have deep personal feelings.

When young Ronnie Winslow (Guy Edwards) finally has a one-on-one interview with his father, however, the latter quickly accepts his son’s claim to innocence and dedicates the family fortune to righting what he perceives as a profound injustice.

As for Catherine, she conceals her feelings under her intelligence and wit and abandons a suitor she genuinely cares for when the case becomes such a challenge to authority that her fiancé’s father makes marriage impossible. She becomes even more sympathetic when she recognizes that she has misjudged Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam), the suave barrister whom she had first believed took on her brother’s case only for the huge fee.

Mamet’s disciplined production becomes powerfully involving without ever trying to prove anything. We are not asked to accept the British judicial system uncritically and may occasionally wonder whether father and daughter have adequately weighed the cost of their efforts. Nigel Hawthorne’s combination of irony and authority is especially notable; the entire cast is excellent.

“The Winslow Boy” profits from the handsome, mostly interior photography of Benoít Delhomme. The audience is not manipulated but treated as adults; instead of adolescent postures of passion, the sparring between Jeremy Northam and Rebecca Pidgeon provides the pleasure of watching two young people discover the real worth of each other.

Avoiding sensationalism, “The Winslow Boy” makes you realize you’re in the hands of professionals; all you need do is sit back and watch closely as they show their craft.

The King of Masks (Samuel Goldwyn Films) is a Chinese film with an exotic setting (Sichuan in 1930) and a universal story. Bianlian Wang, its title character (Xu Zhu), is an aging street performer eager to pass on his sleight-of-hand skills to a male heir.

Doggie (Zhou Renying), the 8-year-old child he buys at a back alley black market, responds affectionately to Wang’s instinctive kindness and colorful folk-sayings. Their life on a crude houseboat, which they share with Turkey, the magician’s trained monkey, seems almost idyllic, especially after Doggie becomes proficient at scratching Wang’s back.

Director Tian-Ming Wu has a serious theme to accompany the comedy of this master-disciple relationship: the indifference and cruelty shown to Chinese girls. When Wang discovers that Doggie is not a boy, he wants nothing more to do with her; even after he relents and allows her to remain on the houseboat, he insists that she is only a servant and must call him Boss instead of Grandfather.

Didacticism and sentimentality are kept in check by exhibitions of Wang’s ability to switch facial masks and Doggie’s amazing acrobatics. (Zhou Renying was, in fact, sent away to join an acrobatic troupe at the age of 3.) Wang’s reputation is established in an early scene in which a cross-dressing male opera star invites the magician to join his company, but the story’s narrative development sometimes seems arbitrary, as when the little girl accidentally sets fire to the roof of the houseboat.

The reason why Wang could pass on his art only to a boy is made hilariously clear when Doggie suddenly asks him what a male protégé would have that she lacks. “A little tea spout!” the street performer responds, his chauvinist assumptions secure, even though he finds her delightful.

Events turn melodramatic after Doggie, in a desperate gesture of affection, finds a kidnapped boy, brings him to the houseboat and disappears. Wang believes the child is the answer to his prayers at a Buddhist shrine, but the old man is soon imprisoned for kidnapping and scheduled for execution. His opera star friend then risks his position by making a strong protest on Wang’s behalf, and at the end Doggie performs a perilous acrobatic feat that softens the hearts of the authorities.

Although “The King of Masks” won major awards in China, it’s hard to know what impact it may have in a society that still seriously undervalues girl children.

As a movie, it succeeds not on the basis of its suspense elements, but because of its appealingly loving images of Wang and Doggie. We are reminded of our common human loneliness as we share a little time with them on that houseboat.

Even if you didn’t spend youthful summer vacations at a Jewish camp in the Catskills, there should be a nostalgic payoff from Walk on the Moon (Miramax). As the title suggests, it’s 1969, Woodstock isn’t far away and a well-integrated soundtrack offers songs by Joni Mitchell, Ritchie Havens, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and other favorites of the era.

Tony Goldwyn, directing his first movie, knows how to use specific reminders of time and place to enliven a conventional story of lower middle-class family crisis with genuine moments of humor, romance and pathos.

The movie opens with the whole Kantrowitz family piling their gear into (and atop) their aging car for the trip to their bungalow. The authentic communal atmosphere of the camp is quickly established -- there’s no privacy, kids are screaming and the voice on the public address system (Julie Kavner) never lets up.

The problem is that Marty, the father (Liev Schreiber), a TV-repairman, has to work all week in New York and can only be there weekends. His wife, Pearl (Diane Lane), is left to wonder if she married too young; is there nothing to look forward to but cooking, caring for her two children and games of mahjong? Her desperation is increased when her restless 14-year-old daughter, Alison (Anna Pacquin), has her first period, prompting the traditional slap by the mother.

The situation is made to order for the appearance of a handsome stranger, embodied by a handsome goyish hippie, Walker Jerome (Viggo Mortensen), an itinerant peddler who charms the elderly Jewish ladies at the camp into buying blouses. The women (of different generations) with whom I saw the movie had no difficulty accepting Mortensen as an authentic heartthrob. As the camp comes together to cheer shadowy images of Americans on the moon, Pearl and Walker embark on a passionately tender moonwalk of their own.

Grandma phones her son, Marty, that it’s important to rush back to the bungalow. Things reach a dangerous turn when Alison, taking her own tentative steps toward a relationship with a young man at the camp, sees her mother with Walker at Woodstock. Pamela Gray’s fine script, which has dozens of authentic touches, a fine sense of comedy and genuine respect for her characters, teeters toward melodrama as Marty arrives and learns the truth. The acting is consistently credible; Tovah Fesldshuh especially stands out as the grandmother, a role that could easily have become a caricature. Showing sympathy for both son and her daughter-in-law, her measured appeals help prevent an irreparable break. Her psychic readings early in the movie make you think she is a crank, but by the end, her visions suggest a genuine wisdom.

“Walk on the Moon” softens the realities it deals with: The hippie is sweeter than most of his ’69 counterparts, and Marty is a model father, especially in his last conversation with his daughter. But Goldwyn likes his actors and understands the world of his film. You will be both amused and touched.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie critic.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999