Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Most film producers would think Terence Rattigan's play The Browning Version unlikely material for adaptation to the screen. Anthony Asquith's intense 1951 film version studies an English schoolteacher as he realizes his life and career have been a complete failure. Loathed by his students and dismissed by his professional peers, Andrew Crocker-Harris was once one of the brightest academic prizewinners in the country. What happened?
Forced to retire over health issues, classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) spends his last teaching day doing what he always has, boring and browbeating his students. The school board shows its contempt for Andrew by refusing him a pension routinely advanced to other teachers in his situation. Headmaster Frobisher (Wilfred Hyde-White) condescendingly rearranges the graduation ceremony to downplay Andrew's participation. Crocker-Harris' wife Millie (Jean Kent) is furious over the pension decision and despondent that she'll lose contact with the popular science teacher Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick), her lover. Just as he's about to succumb to self-pity and despair, Crocker-Harris receives a heartfelt gift from one of his students, Taplow (Brian Smith), that gives him a measure of hope. But is it just a schoolboy's ploy to obtain a better grade?
When the 60s wave of new directing talent hit English screens, much of the previous generation of mainstream filmmakers fell into immediate disfavor. Revisionist film critics discounted the work of Anthony Asquith as stuffy and anonymous. The Browning Version is a filmed play with no pretense to cinematic innovation and no clever camera work to catch the eye. Asquith lets his actors tell a story that takes place mostly in the stone interiors of an ancient school, and even the interruption of a cricket match doesn't cue an action scene. There is no apology for the theatrical focus on the plight of one unhappy professor.
Many a play has been diluted by the filmic opportunity to 'open it up' to better scenery, wide exteriors and action scenes. The screen adaptation of The Browning Version instead slightly re-thinks the beginning and ending with added scenes. Adapting his own work, playwright-screenwriter Terence Rattigan drops expository speeches from his first drawing-room scene and opens instead with a series of short sequences that establish the setting and introduce the teachers. We see for ourselves what makes Andrew Crocker-Harris a terrible teacher, even as we sympathize with him. Rattigan also finds a way to extend the ending, which on stage concluded with a single gesture from Crocker-Harris showing that he might stand up for himself. Two added scenes give the audience further hope that Crocker-Harris will redeem himself, an uplift that doesn't pretend all problems are solved.
The Browning Version is the antithesis of James Hilton's
Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the
famous story about another introvert who seems a similar failure until the right woman comes along to help him connect with his students and fellow faculty. Mr. Chipping's dreams of advancement and greatness don't come true, but he becomes immortal in the eyes of generations of students.
Michael Redgrave's Andrew Crocker-Harris didn't marry a supportive Greer Garson type and never learned how to relate to other people, let alone his students. His unfaithful wife detests him. His nickname among the schoolboys is "Himmler." His classroom manner is pedantic torture dished out by a profoundly unhappy man. The proof of his unpopularity is the snide way his headmaster lets him know that his pension has been denied. The faculty's desire to spare him the humiliation of his formal goodbye speech is really an academic version of the bum's rush. Andrew suddenly sees that his life has been wasted - he hasn't fostered a love for the ancient classics or earned anyone's respect.
On this last day at school, Crocker-Harris connects with the fellow faculty member who has cuckolded him, Nigel Patrick's Frank Hunter. Both Hunter and new teacher Gilbert (Ronald Howard) offer sincere speeches of apology, but Andrew isn't convinced that the gestures are genuine. Only the curious school kid Taplow (somewhat uncomfortably reminiscent of the bright-faced cherub in Mr. Chips) penetrates Andrew's thick defenses. Amid all the crushing disapproval, Taplow revives Andrew's emotions with a heartfelt gift. That new vulnerability allows Andrew to begin to take positive charge of his fate, and at last relate to his world as something other than a victim.
The Browning Version's Anthony Asquith does what modern filmmakers would consider career suicide - he tries to make his contribution transparent. Asquith's direction certainly isn't fussy; the only real formality in the piece is the camera angle on a stately school building that is both the first and last shot for the film. Asquith avoids the temptation to make Andrew heroic or instantly sympathetic. Instead, we look for a sign that he might break out of his social isolation and sense of worthlessness, and Asquith's reserved style refuses to give us easy signposts to follow. A single hint - the discovery of his forgotten translation of The Agamemnon by Aeschylus - is all that's needed to inspire hope. Crocker-Harris is the stunted potential in all of us and we can't help but root for him.
Michael Redgrave's acting is just about perfect. He never breaks character with stage business or affectations to endear us to Andrew or beg for our sympathy. The man is dull, unresponsive, resigned and miserable ... and we watch for the first glimmer that he might find himself.
A couple of Andrew's colleagues are capable of gallant behavior but the play is less kindly toward women. Jean Kent's backbiting and hurtful Millie is as unsupportive a spouse as one could imagine, capable of ever-greater cruelty. We're overjoyed when Andrew finally announces his intention to leave her behind.
More idealized and perhaps a bit troubling is Andrew's spiritual revival sparked by the kewpie-faced Taplow, a bright boy as sincere as he is appreciative. The story idealizes male relationships while presenting females as grasping and destructive; it is not difficult to read a subtext of male-male longing into the tale.
Wilfred Hyde-White brings his affected manner to the insultingly jovial headmaster. Young Brian Smith is excellent as the precocious student that recharges Andrew's academic batteries. Unbilled Bill Travers
(Ring of Bright Water,
Gorgo) is unbilled in his second film appearance.
The Browning Version is an absorbing play adaptation; I haven't seen the 1994 version with
Albert Finney. It's the perfect antidote, not for the agreeable Goodbye Mr. Chips, but for
the endless star vehicle movies about idealistic young teachers struggling to motivate their
students - you know, Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer. Faced with surly thugs in
the classroom, her teacher solves all by talking tough, dressing in a leather jacket and giving her
full attention to one disadvantaged student. Ninety ridiculous minutes later, the whole school is
celebrating her glory. Any teacher will tell you that it just isn't like that. A Hollywood story development
person would have Crocker-Harris' The Agamemnon by Aeschylus win a Nobel prize and give him a
resounding triumph for a feel-good fade out.
Criterion's DVD of The Browning Version is presented in an impeccable B&W transfer. A studious Bruce Eder commentary digs deep into the stories of its makers while comparing the movie to the source play. Disc producer Issa Clubb conducts a new interview with Mike Figgis, the director of the 1994 remake. Figgis had a peculiar problem: How does one do a meaningful remake of a classic? A 1958 TV interview with Michael Redgrave gives us a good look at the congenial, serious actor. Critic Geoffrey MacNab provides a liner essay in defense of the directors of England's classic period.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Browning Version rates:
Sound: Excellent (English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
Supplements: Commentary by film historian Bruce Eder; interview with Mike Figgis,
director of the 1994 remake; interview with Michael Redgrave from 1958; essay by film critic
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 11, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson