Jeremy Northam and Gemma Jones visited Dallas recently to talk about their work with David Mamet on “The Winslow Boy.” Both admitted to some initial surprise at the choice of material, but came to see the rightness of it.
Northam, well-known to audiences for his work in “The Net,” “Emma,” and “Mimic,” remarked: “Once you look past the surface surprise of it being a period movie and it not being in a contemporary street setting and that the language is not David’s own–he wouldn’t write in this particular style–then it’s not so much of a surprise, because there are connections thematically. I suppose there was surprise as well at the depth of his being moved by the idea of gentility and politeness and good manners and altruism and self-sacrifice that are shown in the story…. But then when you go back to look at the older scripts and films, you can say maybe that sense of justice is what fired his interest in stories which so often deal with a form of corruption and of cunning and gulling and treachery and deception. I think that beneath it all there’s this rock on honor in this story that really appealed to him.” He also noted that it’s perhaps Mamet’s connection to the play’s themes that makes his treatment of it seem “less and less an old warhouse…and much more about ideas of self-sacrifice and altruism and the impossibility in some way of defining what people’s motives are.” Jones, who appeared in “Sense and Sensibility” and “Wilde,” added: “[David’s] very much a man of letters and literature who very much enjoys the craft of writing and loved the way this play was crafted.”
Both stars discussed the restrained acting style required by the piece. “It takes a lot of courage to be that minimalist, because we’re really tempted to show the audience what you mean or what you feel,” Northam remarked. “We just had to trust David that as long as we knew what we felt or what we meant, the camera would pick it up.” He added that the dramatic technique of not directly showing big moments in the plot, but having them related second-hand, was actually beneficial to the performers, because it allows “all possibilities [to be] present” when one’s character reappears. “That gives you the opportunity to hint at a whole set of stories,” he said.
Jones agreed. “My instincts had been at the time to go bigger with it,” she said. “But David always found very good reasons for pulling me back. That was quite scary; I was afraid it was going to come out too bland. But I was very impressed when I saw the film at how clear it was that although the emotional dynamic band might be quite narrow, within it there’s plenty of variety, so you see people’s momentary thoughts and feelings quite clearly.”
The film was shot almost completely in a real period house in London. “There was actually a family living in the house while we were filming, with a very small child,” Jones recalled. “And they were hiding away in rooms at the top of the house, trying to keep their children quiet.” And the actors, conversely, had to keep the noise down when the children were napping. But not a bit of the difficulty can be discerned in the beautifully poised appearance of the final product.