For the students of a stuffy British prep school, their own personal knowledge nemesis is Anthony Crocker-Harris. For almost two decades, this dry, emotionless man has found a way to sap the drama out of ancient Greek and Latin literature, to remove any classicism from the text and replace it with boredom and berating. Anyone who hopes to advance to the upper levels of the curriculum must past through his portal of psychological punishment before discovering the true joys of education. The rest of the faculty make fun of Crocker-Harris, referring to him by derogatory, deplorable names, while the students simply hope he will dry up and disappear. Little do they know, but they might just get their wish this term. Mr. Crocker-Harris is leaving their frightened fold, and with any luck, he'll be remembered more by sighs than scars as he walks out the doors.
When they learn of this news, the boys are beside themselves – all except one. Taplow, a particularly sensitive student, has gotten to know Crocker-Harris a bit better than the rest of his classmates, and he actually feels sorry for the cold, arcane instructor. What the students don't know is that Crocker-Harris is not a man who choose to be so heartless and hard. His bitter, shrew of a wife made him that way. "Mrs." Crocker-Harris has carried on affairs with other teachers under her husband's nose, and has systematically destroyed his love of life, self, and education. And this semi-forced "retirement" has her seeing red. But when Taplow gives Crocker-Harris a going away gift, the Browning version of the play Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, it sparks a fire in the middle-aged man that will be hard to quash. Not even a hideous, henpecking wife will be able to control the desire for life that's resulting from the generosity of a gesture from student to tutor.
Teaching is, without a doubt, the most thankless position one can ever strive for. And frankly, the reasons are as reciprocal as they are readily apparent. Parents expect too much, hoping that instruction will cure everything that ails their child, from mental deficiencies to severe psychosocial disorders. Pupils, convinced that being locked up in a single location for eight hours out of any day is paramount to a prison sentence, rebel and reject. They resent being browbeaten over facts and figures for which they cannot see a contextual need or pragmatic use. And of course, there are those for whom teaching is a tentative position, a 'needed a job' kind of career move that neither inspires or enlivens. For them, the end of every day is a blessing, the start another aggravating task of Sisyphean proportions.
Certainly there are those educators who strive for and achieve greatness. There are those parents who work with the school to turn learning into an adventure, not a death sentence. And kids...well, they will still scoff at the idea of learning grammar or understanding algebra, but there are the rare few for whom this is a privilege, not a punishment. Oddly enough, Terence Rattigan's remarkable one act play, The Browning Version, touches on all of these ideas, plus many more. Set within the class conscious parameters of the British public school system (which, unlike the name implies, are very private and usually very elite) and dealing with a scholarly lecturer who has had his instructive way wiped out by home and health, Rattigan used the structured backdrop and memories of his own education to render a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of betrayal and rebirth, of idealistic death and humanistic reincarnation. Though parents play an inconsequential part in the overall storyline, Rattigan still recognizes their overpowering influence. Schools like the one he depicts aren't only built on reputation and rank. It's tuition and endowments that keeps the status strong as well.
Accomplished British filmmaker Anthony Asquith's 1951 film version of the stage success, with Rattigan along as screenwriter, is a Greek tragedy couched in tea and crumpet terms. It offers a hopeless anti-hero whose fatal flaws are so many that there really appears to be no hope for his salvation. It surrounds him with villains both obvious and oblique, all more than ready to kick – or even kill – a man while he is good and down. It addresses issues of tenure and temperament, weakness and strength, and contains one of the finest acting performances of any British film. Anyone expecting this to be a Dead Poet's Society style romp, with a magical teacher bucking the system to send a message of knowing nonconformity to his students needs to find their fix for such educational fairytales somewhere else. Rattigan and Asquith are out to show us a single man, made sour and insecure by circumstances both outside and inside himself, and how the consideration of one student can bring a body back from the brink of existential extinction.
Before we meet him, we anticipate a complete monster. Everything in the film's first 15 minutes sets us up for such a frightening fiend. He's The Old Crock, a right swine who sends the hairs on the back of his students' necks tingling with terror. He's a cad, a beast, an abominable bastard who offers nothing but fear and loathing to the minds of his educational charges. As we see him sitting in early morning chapel, he's an imposing, silent figure – authority beaming from beneath his smallish spectacles. The image then is set and cemented: an overbearing egotistical ass; a Paper Chase like dictator who rules the classroom like a combination banana republic and penitentiary; a mean-old man who can't bear to offer a single kind or considerate thought. And as the classroom door opens, and the casual, chatty charges suddenly spring to order, backs straight and faces reflecting terror as well as temerity, we're set to finally lay eyes on the ogre. We're mentally prepared to take our punishment, to accept the scolding of this scholarly Scrooge and suffer his snide insinuations like the freshly weaned billy goats gruff that we are.
So imagine our shock when Michael Redgrave, dapper beyond all dress codes and so stoic as to resemble a statue, wanders in to start the lesson. At first, we can't quite fathom how this kindly, seemingly sickly old gentleman inspires so much trepidation. Then the facts begin to fall into place. Crocker-Harris is a self-confessed dead man, a human being hollowed at by disease and the damaging distrust of a wife who despises him. While he's gifted with a knowledge that could fill a library, he's unable to get that wealth of comprehension across to his students. After years of trying – not very hard, mind you – he's taken a more mannered, detached approach. He doesn't respond as much as ridicule, digging into his students at their most tender, tentative places. Certainly, he was a man with dreams, someone whom life once blessed with ability and prospects. But now, at only 43, he is being tossed aside, replaced by a younger instructor and forced to leave the only position he's known without a pension, or the probability to betterment. At middle age, his life is over. But instead of feeling sorry for him, those around him can't wait to push him further off into personal oblivion.
Individual potential is one of The Browning Version's overriding subtexts, as important as any other aspect of the play/film's construction. From Crocker-Harris' canned response whenever he is asked about a students' promotion ("He is getting exactly what he deserves – nothing less, and certainly nothing more") to the various unfinished aspects of his life, both personal and professional, our teacher is seen as a man who never succeeded at anything a day in his life. His is an existence wasted on formalities, duty, etiquette and a senseless devotion to decorum. He never smiles, finds no joy in his job, or those surrounding his employ, and always locates the many pitfalls placed in his path; the deserved dead-ends of a talent wasted, a gift unexplored. It's interesting that a man of letters, someone who is supposed to bring out the inner ideal in others, would be such a stark, solemn figure of ineptness. Though he is often seen as capable and punctual (Crocker-Harris is commended for his attention to detail, and for the effort he has put in creating the school's ultra-efficient class schedule), Rattigan and Asquith also want us to clearly understand that this is a man lamentably lacking in the one area that proves your humanity – your sensitivity and emotional development.
The notion of machismo and individual distance are also at the center of The Browning Version's variables. Rattigan, a closeted gay man his entire life, was not allowed to write openly about the tenderness and security he found in all male relationships, so he makes sure to place all his anti-hetero histrionics squarely inside the supporting players surrounding the lead. Within the cold, cuckolding wife, Millicent, we see nothing but evil and despair, the draining of vitality via the constant need to feed the female beast. Rattigan obviously finds the forced flash of women to be disconcerting, and tries his best to paint poor Mrs. Crocker-Harris in the worst light possible. And he succeeds royally. Without a doubt, this is one of the most hateful women in cinema history (more on this later).
Science teacher Frank Hunter, on the other hand, is the direct antithesis of Crocker-Harris. Virile, vital and overtly personable with his students, he is supposed to represent the man fulfilled, the flawed brash bravado that will result in success – and lead to shame and embarrassment as well. Naturally, Hunter is exposed, his trysts with Mrs. Crocker-Harris unmasked, and this once strong man is left to apologize and empathize with those he's harmed – all except the woman, that is.
Rattigan also infers that Crocker-Harris himself may be a repressed homosexual. When confronted and called out over the affairs, Crocker-Harris excuses his wife's indiscretions by claiming that she is only looking for a love within him that he cannot provide. He also admits that she does not give him the kind of emotional comfort he has long looked for. While some can read simple incompatibility into this speech, and maybe even veiled hints at impotence or a lack of physical prowess, the truth seems much plainer. Rattigan, required by law and public standards to keep gay issues out of the limelight, is hinting at a different kind of interpersonal connection. Asquith accentuates this idea by holding tight on Redgrave's face as he makes the puzzling pronouncement, and one can't help but read a world of wounded feelings flowing from this slightly bemused man as he confesses his incapability for normal, man-woman relationships.
Naturally, one needs actors and a director who can pull all these elements together, individuals capable of creating pure drama, not overdone melodramatics. Without question, Asquith was one of Britain's finest directors, a talent on pair with his contemporaries – a list that included Lean, Hitchcock, Reed and Powell. His control of the camera is breathtaking and his use of overtly ornate sets and sunlit outdoor backdrops really add to the intense dichotomy being played out by the characters. But even with Rattigan's refined language and Asquith filmic knowledge, a bad cast could completely corrupt The Browning Version. Thankfully, everyone involved, even the most contemptible characters, essay their roles with sophisticated regality.
The brilliance in Redgrave's performance comes from how completely he rounds out and refines his character. While several actors of considerable stature have tackled the role after him (including Peter Cushing, Ian Holm and most recently, Albert Finney) it is hard to imagine anyone but Redgrave doing Andrew Crocker-Harris justice. He seems to find the right tone for Old Crock almost immediately, trading on an imposing, leading man profile and figure to hide his weak inner facets. When he speaks, it's in a slight stammer, a voice effete and almost afraid to speak. Certainly, the words are harsh, but the presentation is more hindered than harmful.
This is all part of Redgrave's interpretation of the character, concepts coming directly from Rattigan's words. During a conversation with the teacher who will take his place, Crocker-Harris comments on how he initially won over the students, employing little gestures and affected speech patterns to turn himself into a minor mockery. Initially the boys related, reveling in their teacher's twisted eccentricities. But after watching this man function outside the classroom, interacting with staff and adult associates, we realize he is now nothing but those tics and quirks. He has reduced himself into a caricature, and then further developed his personality into an execrable laughing stock. That Redgrave still provides those glimpses of inner verve, those chances to see the man Crocker-Harris could be if he simply decided to let down his guard and live, is what makes the performance so amazing. We find ourselves outwardly sympathizing with a man that, over the years, has managed to alienate just about everyone else in his sphere of influence.
The rest of the acting is also first rate, which does raise an interesting point. The one minor misstep in this otherwise sensational drama is the horrible harpy known as Mrs. Millicent Crocker-Harris, played like a prig in a painted poke by the jaundiced Jean Kent. Certainly, every theatrical tragedy needs a villain, a tireless tormentor out to suck the vitality out of those whom he or she hates. But Millie has NO redeeming values whatsoever. She is cunning and heartless. She cheats regularly and often, not only on her sad sack of a husband, but on the various teachers she strings along at the school. She abhors the thought of her spouse's lack of success, while she can't wait to announce the titled status of her Uncle, "SIR so and so". From the moment we learn that she means nothing but misery for her man, we want her confrontational comeuppance and we want it soon. But when it comes – and rest assured, it does – it is a tad underwhelming. What it means for Mr. Crocker-Harris is something almost awe-inspiring. But Mrs. Crocker-Harris is left with a silent, solitary send-off which really doesn't do her evil justice. A nag as nasty as she deserves a bigger payback. All The Browning Version can offer is abandonment and more manners.
There will also be those who find The Browning Version a bit stagy, mired in a theatrical ideal that director Anthony Asquith never quite successfully opens up. Certainly, Rattigan has given him ample opportunities. The actual play itself doesn't appear in the film adaptation until a good 15 minutes in. And then the last 10 minutes were created anew by the playwright as well. Yet aside from the cricket match, its sunny facade hiding clouds of despair ahead, the rest of the film can often feel like scenes and soliloquies delivered from different places on the proscenium. But again, the power of the words and the individuals enlivening them are enough to keep the narrative theatricality at bay.
The result is a fine, finessed drama with both heart and heaviness, a cinematic call to arms for the removal of repression and the actual experiencing of life. The Browning Version may appear to be the hopeless tale of a hapless teacher, but it is really much more than that. It's a testament to the moment when we finally stand up for ourselves, and take responsibility for who we are and what we stand for. Sometimes, we need a teacher to help us along that path. Other times, it is the instructor that needs our help.