Top critical review
Worthwhile, But See Donat, Leighton, and Hardwicke
on March 10, 2001
This is an excellent film, and J.N. and N.H. are especially good, but I had two major reservations. First, I did not at all care for R.P.'s smirking performance as Kate Winslow; I did not feel that there were great unspoken depths--on the contrary, I found her entirely one dimensional. There was also some excellent dialogue in the first film version that was not carried over to the second. I have not read or seen the play, and do not know if the dialogue I missed was in fact part of the original screen adaptation, but even if it was Mamet should have retained it. What I specifically have in mind is the moment when Kate and Sir Robert meet. In the first film, Kate is expecting her fiance and flings open the front door with a "John, you're late!", only to find Sir Robert standing there, looking very posh and remote in his evening clothes. She says, "Oh, I'm sorry, I was expecting a friend." As it turns out, of course, it is Sir Robert and not John who turns out to be the truest friend to her and her family.
A scene that was carried over to the new version is the one in which Winslow wants to drop the case because it may threaten Kate's engagement, and Kate assures Sir Robert that her fiance will remain loyal. In the original, Robert queries Kate on this in a sudden and abrupt way that makes it clear he is testing her resolve, and Kate replies in a way that makes clear that although she claims John will hold firm, she's pretty sure that he will not. When Sir Robert sees that she is prepared to sacrifice her future to the principle of right (for, like Sir Robert, she cares more about the principle involved than clearing her brother), he softens towards her. Indeed, although this film is a fine romance (of the stiff-upper-lip school), thanks to Leighton's performance it is also far more appealingly feminist than the remake.
Leighton and Hardwicke are quite marvelous in the 1940s version, but at the center of it is the great Robert Donat, with his white-faced handsomeness, his dark gaze, his beautifully melancholy voice, and his sadly detached manner. The delicacy with which he works his way through the film, with his restraint and remoteness making the moments of emotion or flirtation all the more affecting, is extraordinary. Northam's performance is in the same vein, and also superior, but don't miss Donat!