Forced to retire from an English public school, an unpopular professor must confront his failure as a teacher and husband.Forced to retire from an English public school, an unpopular professor must confront his failure as a teacher and husband.Forced to retire from an English public school, an unpopular professor must confront his failure as a teacher and husband.
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.)
- Sep 3, 2002