The Browning Version [DVD]
Director : Anthony Asquith
Screenplay : Terence Rattigan (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1951
Stars : Michael Redgrave (Andrew Crocker-Harris), Jean Kent (Millie Crocker-Harris), Nigel Patrick (Frank Hunter), Ronald Howard (Gilbert), Brian Smith (Taplow), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Frobisher)
The philosopher Elie Wiesel famously said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, and that indifference is the true enemy of human creativity. Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave), the central character of The Browning Version, would appear on the surface to be the very epitome of such indifference. A teacher of classics at a British boys school, Crocker-Harris is a humorless and didactic stoic of such rigid disposition that the students genuinely don't know what to make of him. They mimic his mannered speech and expressionless face and call him "The Crock" and "Himmler of the Lower Fifth" behind his back, but there's no adolescent joy in the jokes; they're dry because he's so dry.
The story takes place over a few days, as Crocker-Harris prepares to leave his position at the school after 18 years. He has an unnamed illness that is forcing him to resign, but his imminent departure is hardly mourned by those around him -- students or faculty. The school even denies him a pension he feels he deserves, a clear slap in the face after nearly two decades of service. His wife, Millie (Jean Kent), a younger woman, has grown to despise him over the years and has been carrying on an affair with Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick), a much beloved science teacher at the school who is, in seemingly every sense, Crocker-Harris' opposite (scientist vs. classicist, friendly vs. stoic, young vs. aging, etc.).
As the central character of a movie, Crocker-Harris poses a challenge because we are as confused about how to approach him as his students are. Is he worthy of derision? Pity? Anger? However, this is precisely what makes The Browning Version so fascinating and multilayered. Although it would appear that Crocker-Harris is a one-note crank, a walking corpse who lacks even basic human emotions, he is in fact an intriguingly complex man whose emotions can barely seep to the surface. Yet, when they do, they are all the more moving for the difficult journey they took.
The Browning Version was based on a 1939 play by prolific English screenwriter and playwright Terence Rattigan, with whom director Anthony Asquith worked many times in his career (Asquith directed 10 of Rattigan's scripts from 1941 to 1964). Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay, remaining largely faithful to his play, although he added several scenes at the beginning to flesh out the story and build up Crocker-Harris' reputation at the school (we hear people talking about him for nearly 10 minutes before we meet him). The film's roots as a one-act theatrical play are evident, as the locations are restricted largely to a classroom and the Crocker-Harris home, although there are some external locations such as a garden and a cricket match that do less to open up the story than to underscore the filmmakers' desire to do so. Yet, this is no way detracts from the story's emotional power because the narrative's close quarters reflect the closed-off nature of the protagonist. He lives in a world all his own, one that was perhaps more permeable in his youth (there are several references to Crocker-Harris' younger days, when he was an idealistic scholar with passion), but is now all but completely sealed off.
Thus, it is not surprising that the audience's surrogate in the film is a student named Taplow (Brian Smith), an ambitious kid who is probably the only one in the school who even attempts to understand The Crock. Like us, he is intrigued by the man's emotional distance and senses that there is more to him than meets the eye. It is ultimately Taplow who is able to get through to Crocker-Harris, not by appealing to his ego, but simply by making the effort to see beneath his skin and somehow connect with him. The stoic professor is reduced to an uncharacteristic emotional outpouring when Taplow presents him with a gift: the poet Robert Browning's verse translation of Agamemnon, Crocker-Harris' favorite play and the story's central symbol for his inability to convey his long-buried passions to his students.
And that is the film's real tragedy and what elevates it above sentimentality. Crocker-Harris' great failure in life, the one that he finally realizes and makes amends for in the film's moving final moments, is that he never succeeded in what he felt was his calling in life: to teach. Anyone who desires to become a teacher should see The Browning Version and absorb the crucial lesson it imparts about the necessity of passion in teaching; otherwise, it is just facts and numbers to be memorized, not internalized and felt. Crocker-Harris knows Latin and Greek and all the classics and can teach his students to translate great works with absolute precision, but his tragedy is that he never conveys to them why even though, deep inside, he knows.
|The Browning Version Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||June 28, 2005|
|The Browning Version has been given an absolutely beautiful transfer from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. Digital restoration has removed virtually all traces of dirt and age, resulting in a sharp, finely detailed image. Black levels are excellent, and the contrast brings out all the nuances of the image, from the tweed in the suits to the scratches on the school desks. Criterion has done another wonderful job, and it would be hard to imagine this film looking any better.|
|The digitally restored monaural soundtrack, mastered from a 35mm optical soundtrack positive, likewise sounds excellent. Dialogue and sound effects (there is virtually no extradiegetic music in the film -- only over the credits) are clear and natural, and there is no ambient hiss.|
|Film historian Bruce Eder contributes an informative screen-specific audio commentary, discussing the film's production, its roots as a stageplay, and particularly the careers of director Anthony Asquith, writer Terence Rattigan, and star Michael Redgrave. Redgrave appears in a somewhat stilted 1958 TV interview (he doesn't really look like he wants to be there) in which he discusses his work as an actor on both stage and screen. Director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), who directed another film of The Browning Version in 1994 with Albert Finney, discusses Asquith's film in a 20-minute video interview. Some of Figgis' comments about the social and cultural context depicted in the film, particularly the role of stoicism in the early 20th-century British education, is particularly illuminating.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection