The Browning Version
December 1, 2005
Anthony Asquith was a British filmmaker who specialized in cinematic adaptations of literature that included the likes of Pygmalion (1938), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and most significantly the following plays of Terence Rattigan: While the Sun Shines (1947), The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951). The collaboration between Asquith and Rattigan on The Browning Version resulted in a masterful, searing character study of a repressed individual plagued by a lifetime of regrets.
Anthony Crocker-Harris (Redgrave) is a middle-aged schoolmaster forced into early retirement because of poor health. He is to be replaced by Mr. Gilbert (Howard), a younger teacher who has arrived early in order to get a feel for his future students and to see how the veteran teacher works. The British private school he teaches at is a rarified society governed by strict rules of etiquette and decorum.
Before we get a proper introduction to Crocker-Harris we are privy to his students’ speculation on what is ailing their teacher. They don’t much like him. They feel that he doesn’t like people or want them to like him. In general, they feel sorry for him. When we do finally meet him properly, the veteran teacher comes across as a stern, no-nonsense man that no student would ever want to have. He even awkwardly tries to say goodbye to his class, a half-hearted last attempt at imparting some kind of humanity that fails miserably.
Crocker-Harris is a humourless sort of person who is a deeply repressed individual. He is a man of regrets as we learn while he tutors a student by the name of Taplow (Smith). During a discussion about the mythic tale of Agamemnon a crack in the teacher’s armour appears, if only for a moment, as he talks about how as a young man he began his own translation of the story but ultimately abandoned it. Taplow reappears later on to perform an unselfish act of kindness that finally pierces Crocker-Harris’ defenses and reaches an emotional part of him that has long been dormant. It also triggers a change in him that will become more apparent at the film’s climax.
His wife, Millie (Kent), appears to be his complete opposite. She is kind and accommodating – especially to the students. She is lenient to Taplow when he shows up to her husband’s study for tutoring. Millie is not interested in her husband’s work or, as it turns out, him. She is openly having an affair with a fellow teacher, Frank Hunter (Patrick), and has nothing but contempt for her husband.
At first, we feel no sympathy for Crocker-Harris but for his apparently long-suffering wife. Once we learn that she’s been cheating on him, that because he is retiring early he has been denied his pension, and, to add insult to injury, he’s told to make his farewell speech before a junior staff member who is also leaving the school (as opposed to after as befitting his tenure at the school), he becomes a much more sympathetic character. Michael Redgrave delivers a flawless performance as he gradually peels back the layers to reveal the inner life of this melancholy individual.
Despite the film’s downbeat ending, there is a glimmer of hope as Crocker-Harris has achieved some level of self-awareness. He comes to terms with his inability to inspire his students and the regrets of his past as symbolized by his unfinished translation of Agamemnon. However, there are still lingering, tantalizing questions left unanswered. What happened to this man over the years? We learn that in his youth he was a brilliant scholar full of idealism and passion that somehow disappeared over the years. What caused this to happen? The film never answers these questions definitively but it is just as well. It leaves something for the audience to think about long after the film ends.
There is an interview with filmmaker Mike Figgis who directed the 1994 version with Albert Finney as Crocker-Harris. The director talks about how he discovered Asquith’s movie and how it led to him directing another version of it. Figgis admires the brilliance of the film and how it represents a bygone era of filmmaking. He speaks quite eloquently about the movie and Rattigan’s work in general.
Also included is an interview with actor Michael Redgrave that he did for a BBC TV program called Picture Parade in 1958. The actor talks about how he picks roles that he finds challenging and the difference between acting on the stage and on film.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder who touches upon the differences between the play and the film. He also examines Asquith’s and Rattigan’s respective careers and how these two men’s lives intersected. Eder offers excellent observations and analysis of the film in this very informative track.