A TIME TO KILL
THE WINSLOW BOY
A Time to Kill is a very respectable courtroom drama of a very old-fashioned type. I’ve not read the John Grisham novel it’s based on nor seen the subsequent film, but this adaptation by Rupert Holmes sits very much in the tradition of Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial by Herman Wouk and the much hipper (albeit without being as hip) A Few Good Men by Aaron Sorkin. Set in early 1980s Alabama, begins with the arraignment of two redneck white men who raped and beat a 10-year old black girl, who are then gunned down outside the courtroom (read: offstage) by the girl’s enraged father. Now the lawyer for the defense has to prove the father guilty by reason of insanity, and a very loose definition of insanity at that. Will he succeed? If you don’t already know the outcome, let’s just say the biggest point of suspense isn’t will he so much as how the hell is he gonna?
The adaptation is efficient and fun without, alas, also creating—in the audience—the visceral sense of moral injustice that makes such diversions transcendent, in the manner of Judgment at Nuremberg (the film, not the play adaptation, which was similarly muted for being more transcribed than theatricalized). And as directed by Ethan McSweeney, it’s delivered with a degree of oldschool theatrical gesture that pulls it even further from verisimilitude. Indeed, the best performance in it, that of Patrick Page as the wily district attorney, is the very soul of pointed theatrical flourish.
there’s simply this: If a genre piece isn’t at least as good as the same kind of thing to be found on
television, what’s the point of the exercise, at those prices? And there’s not
a minute of A Time to Kill that
can match the ten from Boston Legal in
which Alan Shore goes before the Supreme Court to plead on behalf of a mentally
challenged black man, sentenced to death, who claims he is innocent of raping a child. These days, the bar, pun intended,
is very high.
Ironically, though, the bar is met in a manner that doesn’t seem quite so old fashioned by Terrence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, first produced in 1946, set in England just before the First World War, and against the strict codes of conduct and manners of the age. It’s based on a father's two-year fight to clear his son's name after the boy is expelled from Osborne Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal order. To clear the boy's name is imperative for the family's honor; if they can’t, they’ll be shunned by their peers and society—and the boy's life wrecked by the stain on his character.
Relatively speaking, as compared to the Holmes-Grisham play discussed above, we’re not even in the same universe of injustice; and not only that, there’s a degree of ambiguity about the boy’s actual guilt or innocence. More? Not one minute of the play takes place in the courtroom; all that happens offstage. What we see is quite literally a drawing room drama, in which we start with a brief glimpse showing us that the boy is in undefined straits at school, move to seeing the family in their normal untroubled mode, then introduce the trouble…and thereon we are into a long odyssey of weighing the social implications and consequences of battle; engaging the lawyer; hearing the slow, inconclusive reports of legal developments; struggling to keep the faith and keep fighting as resources dwindle and the social shunning encroaches.
Why is this so much stronger a piece than A Time to Kill, and so much more deeply felt? Well, there’s the simple truth that some things are intrinsically better just because; Holmes is a good, journeyman dramatist and Rattigan is among the major theatrical voices of the 20th century (though more celebrated in the UK than in the US). But that aside, Rattigan is constantly frustrating the expectation of archetype, by adding the extra layer that makes you unable to see nobility as purely heroic or opposition as purely antagonistic, by allowing a degree of psychologically sound self-awareness in his characters (unusually insightful for the decades in which he was writing) that keeps them from seeming cut-and-dried even to themselves. And of course there’s the defining irony of the plot: the notion that something so seemingly trivial has the power to ruin lives in a society where propriety is not linked to proportion.
The production, an import from London’s Old Vic, retains its director Lindsay Posner, but is performed by a cast combining Americans with distinguished British émigrés now living in the US, among them the particularly fine Roger Rees as the father, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the mother, Michael Cumpsty as a sympathetic attorney and Alessandro Nivola as the high octane barrister. Seeing The Winslow Boy and A Time to Kill in close proximity is a real lesson in demonstrating how treatment is everything.
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