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With a screenplay by the author of the play on which it is based (Terence
Rattigan), "The Browning Version", although it records the manners and
morals of an age and social milieu that have now vanished, remains a
powerful and deeply moving film, its essential insights intact, and of
continued relevance to our own time.
Arthur Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is a master at an English public school. Once a brilliant young classicist and a promising poet, he has turned into a desiccated, unfeeling and spiteful pedant, despised by his colleagues and feared by his pupils. Ill-health has prompted his early retirement, but it is apparent that his departure will go unmourned, in contrast to that of his attractive and personable young wife (Jean Kent), who is well-liked by all.
The genius of this remarkable film consists in the effortless skill with which it inverts the viewer's initial perceptions. Dismissed as outdated and irrelevant after the Angry Young Men of the mid 50s rendered his middle-class scenarios unfashionable, Rattigan was a master technician of drama, and his dialogue and pacing are faultless. Michael Redgrave was born to play the role of Crocker-Harris, to which he brings a restraint and control that render his performance all the more affecting. Asquith shows remarkable judgment in refusing to manipulate the viewer's emotions with a schmaltzy soundtrack (except for a burst of Beethoven at the end, there is no music). In the event this is unnecessary. It is a rare film that moves me to tears, but "The Browning Version" wins this distinction. Do not waste your time on the 1994 re-make.
[WARNING This comment tells how the film ends.]
Terence Rattigan's screenplay for The Browning Version expands and greatly improves his short stage play of the same name. The title refers to a translation by the poet, Robert Browning, of "Agamemnon," a classical Greek tragedy. The film's protagonist, Andrew Crocker-Harris, an English private school teacher brilliantly played by Michael Redgrave, once wrote a translation of "Agamemnon," and has been trying for years to teach 13-year-old boys to read the Greek original. Because of poor health and general dissatisfaction with his performance, he has resigned his position.
In the tragedy, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, aided by her lover. In the film, Crocker-Harris is spiritually dead, partly from spousal "murder," although the slaughter has been reciprocal, and his wife, Millie, is in worse shape than he. His "death" shows as extreme precision of word and manner, absence of emotional reaction, supercilious bullying of his students, and a cool, high-pitched, stilted, professorial approach to every circumstance. Her "death" shows in a desperate search elsewhere for masculine love, and in harsh, hard, hostile, cold-blooded, humiliating attacks against her husband.
In a tragedy, the hero starts out happy and becomes miserable. In this film, full of the sadness of professional and domestic failure, the hero moves away from misery, via understanding and heartfelt repentance, to the possibility of happiness. With nary a mention of Jesus or the Bible, this story of a teacher of classical Greek reverberates with Christian motifs of spiritual death and resurrection.
The reversal owes much to the intervention of Taplow, one of Harris' students; Frank Hunter, his colleague and Millie's lover; and Gilbert, his replacement. Impressed by the discipline in Harris' teaching, but put off by its humiliating style, Gilbert mentions that the students call Harris "the Himmler of the lower fifth." Harris has not been aware of the nickname, and is clearly hurt. Gilbert is genuinely apologetic and Harris speaks of his failed career and early hopes. At this point in the play, he attributes his failure to shortcomings in the students, which he says will also cause Gilbert to fail. But Gilbert's gibe and sympathy have penetrated.
Taplow, who does a beautiful, satiric imitation of Harris in his absence, nevertheless feels sorry for him and wants to like and help him. In tutorial with Harris, Taplow argues for a vivid translation of "Agamemnon," which he finds exciting. Responding to this warmth, Harris mentions the "very free" translation he had written long ago. Later, as a goodbye present, Taplow gives Harris Browning's translation, inscribing it: "God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master." Harris weeps, sobs; the ice is breaking up.
Hearing of the gift, Millie insists that Taplow is apple polishing. The shell temporarily recongeals. Hunter, angry at Millie's conduct and thoroughly ashamed of his affair with her, assures Harris that Taplow's appreciation is genuine. He urges Harris to leave his wife, and to stay in touch. Harris blames himself as much as Millie for the failure of the marriage, he unable to provide the physical love, she the intellectual love, which the other most needed. But the genuineness of Hunter's apology and interest have made a difference.
In a sense, the heroes of the story are the three helpers, especially Taplow and Hunter. And the love they give is not physical or intellectual, but that of the Good Samaritan, extended to a fellow human being in need. But if to Harris, why not to Millie, whose need is even greater? Why are Taplow and Hunter and we in the audience eager to rescue Harris, but content to abandon Millie?
While Taplow in the study translates the scene in which Clytemnestra stands over the body of her murdered husband, Millie on the lawn pleads with Hunter. Hunter: "I feel sorry for him." Millie: "He's not sorry for himself, so why should you be? It's me you should be sorry for." Hunter: For Heaven's sake, stop this [complaining]." Millie: "For Heaven's sake, show me some pity. . . . If you don't [come to visit me], I think I shall kill myself." Why not -- for Heaven's sake -- try also to rescue her? Her coarse brutality toward Harris is hard to forgive, but so is his refined humiliation of students. But two huge defeats, heart disease and forced resignation, invite our compassion for him at the outset. His language, beautifully dressed, raised in pitch but never in volume, quiet, clear, restrained, invites attention and leaves room for helpers. Following Taplow's lead, we start the film wondering what is wrong, and hoping to fix it. But most important, Taplow and Hunter appreciate this man, who is really dying to be liked. They don't like Millie. We follow their lead. Taplow, Hunter and we are not saints: they don't stop for Millie, and we don't ask them to.
At a school assembly, Harris and a popular cricket star are to make farewell speeches. The latter's speech, expected to produce a climax of public enthusiasm, falls flat. Harris' appearance, expected to be an embarrassment, electrifies the audience. Putting aside his planned text, he confesses his complete failure as a teacher, not because of the shortcomings of his students, but because he has not given them "sympathy, encouragement and humanity." (The viewer, through his tears, may note that this is what Harris has newly been receiving.) The eloquent, short speech concluded, the assembly begin to clap and then to cheer. Not a realistic response, I think, given the school's long-established fear and rejection of this man. But surely the video audience is cheering, and the angels above.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Terence Rattigan was awarded Best Screenplay and Michael Redgrave, Best Actor. Emphatically deserved! The film is beautifully directed by Anthony Asquith, with a fine cast, especially Brian Smith as Taplow and Nigel Patrick as Hunter. I wholeheartedly second the raves in other comments at this site. (This one is based on the VHS edition.)
Not a review...just an anecdote.
My wife and I were preparing to attend a party and I turned the TV on as I was getting dressed. The Browning Version had just begun. I had never seen it but after a few minutes, found myself sitting on the bed, still watching. My wife came in to ask why I wasn't getting ready and I pointed to the TV saying, "This is a great movie and I have no idea what it is." She sat down and watched a few minutes to see what I was talking about.
we never made it to the party.
Emotionally engrossing with sterling performances. Very glad to see this finally coming out as a Criterion Collection DVD.
Without a doubt, one of the best movies I've ever seen. This movie is a movie for today, it seemed fresh enough to have been shot in our time. Michael Redgrave's performance is amazing as the beaten professor, life deals him blow after blow and he keeps on going without a blink. You want him to scream, you want him to react, but he is simply too scared. Perhaps he's accepted his lot in life, but you want more for him. It was heart wrenching and I was left knowing I had witnessed a classic that would not be easily matched. I haven't seen a movie so moving since my first viewing 10 years ago. Highly recommended and it appears it's coming to DVD very soon!
Until a week ago I had never seen this film.
I was lent a videocassette of it (taped from the TV) by a friend who urged me to watch it. "But you must watch it alone", they stipulated.
I am not sure whether my friend's act was one of great kindness or great cruelty. I do know that watching the film was extremely harrowing and upsetting.
It is difficult to convey quite what is so troubling and disturbing about this film without giving the plot away, but I was unprepared, among other things, for the frankness about sexual matters in such an old film (especially the frankness regarding female sexuality). Given that Rattigan was himself a homosexual (albeit, in a pre-Wolfenden age, a closeted one), it is possible (indeed, possibly too easy) to perceive a homosexual subtext in the film, should one choose to. But it is not necessary.
At first I was half expecting something sentimental in the "Goodbye, Mr Chips" vein (and this is, indeed, ironically referred to in "The Browning Version"), but this film is no facile tear-jerker. I did not read the other IMDb reviews before watching the film, and I was unprepared for the shock to my system that this amazing film has delivered.
I am not sure that I can unreservedly recommend the film, if only because it is so deeply unsettling and emotionally raw. A film set in an English public school of the early 1950s suggests a world of emotions reined-in and denied. But the terrible crises that occur in "The Browning Version" expose real emotions in a way that, even now, is rare.
This film urgently needs to be made available on DVD. For those who can withstand the intensity of its onslaught, it constitutes a salutary emotional cleansing.
This is a beautiful, and perennially relevant film.
Based on Terence Rattigan's play, this is a moving story of a public (private) schoolmaster's disappointments as his life slips away from him, and his increasing sense of isolation from everyone around him as even his wife makes clear her bitterness towards him. Michael Redgrave's performance is masterfully poignant. The film was made in an era when the values inherent in the film still had considerable currency, helping the film to achieve a degree of authenticity which it is doubtful could be achieved today. (I have not seen the more recent version, though, so it may be that I am wrong). If you are interested in the human condition, or simply want to see a masterful portrayal of human pain then you should watch this film.
I do not think the 1994 remake is so appalling.But it cannot hold a
candle to this one,for sure,though.Part of the reason can be
found,IMHO,in how the two directors deal with the main character.THe
color version gambles on Albert Finney's performance and overlooks the
rest of the cast which is not that much exciting in the first place
(M.Modine is rather bland).Here ,the whole cast is outstanding ,from
the young guy who plays the student to Jean Kent,a bitchy wife ,from
Nigel Patrick's bewildered science teacher who becomes a human being
during the movie to Wilfrid Hyde-White's (whatever a precedent user's
view on the matter)mischievous,suave and finally cruel headmaster.
Of course Michael Redgrave steals the show ,but he gets good support all along the way.His performance is subdued,but emotionally intense ,and if you do not shed a tear during his final speech,you must have a heart of stone.The black and white cinematography and the stifling atmosphere give the tragedy the three unities (place,time and action) and an inventive directing makes us forget it's a play,like in the best Mankiewicz works.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is, quite simply, the Best One-Act play ever written, any time, any place; it's a Faberge egg with a Swiss movement and the fact that as I write, June, 2005, a French translation has just picked up a couple of Molieres is indicative of its wider appeal. It was Terence Rattigan who first identified and named the 'English Disease' as repression and he explored it in play after play such as Separate Tables and this one. A consummate scriptwriter as well as a Dramatist Rattigan handled his own adaptation and though he 'opened it out' a little he still maintains the tension and his dramatic skill is evident in every frame. Michael Redgrave is simply magnificent as the repressed Andrew Crocker-Harris, so much so, that he makes the excellent supporting actors, Jean Kent, Nigel Patrick, Wilfrid Hyde White, etc seem merely competent. This is a film that cannot be praised too highly
I can't speak too highly of this movie, it's a personal favourite, almost up there with Waterfront. It includes incidentally a wonderful evocation of the English public (private) school of the immediate post-war era one of many pleasures. It's about the human condition (of course), the bitter lessons life has provided for the "Crock" (Redgrave). Once a brilliant scholar, he loses his way as a school master and is beset by failure on all fronts and hated by all the staff and pupils except the boy, Taplow, who he treats as unkindly as the rest. Redgrave gives the performance of a lifetime! For example, his entrance into the classroom is a shattering cinematic experience in itself, one of the great moments of the cinema, on a par with James Stewart starting up the engine of the plane in 'The Flight of the Phoenix'! Before he has even uttered a single word he has fleshed out the character so effectively that we instantly appreciate what an embittered swine he has become. I could rave on about this film at length! Other performances are great, even the cameos. The boy Taplow, Brian Smith especially. The headmaster, Wilfred Hyde-White was perhaps the only disappointment, seeming simply to play himself. And it's got a feel-good ending too, which might bring on a tear or two without jarring too much. Somehow get to see this film and then watch again and enjoy it even more.
Michael Redgrave is wonderful in this film. To watch him in The Lady
Vanishes, then to see him in this, it really is a testament to his
The story itself is utterly depressing, and shows little remorse. Though this is why the film is so brilliant. The atmosphere mixes that of the school and that of the Greek tragedy - namely Aeschylus' the Agamemnon. Coker-Harris is slowly broken down by his wife, which is similar to that of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. However, Coker-Harris has not done much wrong to warrant this hate and spite, which makes him a sympathetic and tragic character.
The film moves at a brisk pace and is not once boring. The acting is superb, the look efficient and makes for a superb film.
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