Sunday, February 1, 2009

Rediscovering The Browning Version (1951)

The Browning Version: Criterion Collection
1951// 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Review by Steve Evans

“I am of the opinion that occasionally an anticlimax can be surprisingly effective.”

A masterpiece of British realism, The Browning Version features beautifully nuanced acting in the service of scabrous dialogue, as a repressed professor comes to terms with failure in his autumnal years. Characters practically ooze hatred for one another, yet they smile in their devotion to proper English manners. This faith in social proprieties may be all that keeps them from coming to blows, indeed, from killing each other. The teacher, his unfaithful wife, her lover, the school headmaster—these people practically suffocate under the weight of their life choices and the burden of maintaining a thin veneer of civility. Patience rewards the careful viewer, as seldom have such vicious conversations been delivered with such élan on film.

A Bit of Plot
During his final year as a classics teacher at an exclusive English prep school, embittered schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave, father of Vanessa) questions the meaning of his life as poor health and a disintegrating marriage lead him into depression. His students mock him behind his back. His casually malicious wife Millie (Jean Kent, who starred in the director's earlier The Woman in Question) indulges in an affair with Frank Hunter (Ronald Howard), her husband's colleague. Adding to these insults, scheming headmaster Frobisher (Wilfrid Hyde-White, The Winslow Boy) wants to deny Crocker-Harris his pension on a technicality — early retirement due to declining health.

As Crocker-Harris slowly comes to grips with these slights, he begins to evaluate the folly of pride and his own arrogance. Ever stoic, his rigid manner hides profound remorse over the cruel remarks he has made to colleagues and students through the years. He simply does not know how to express his sorrow. Only young Taplow (Brian Smith), a sincere and unassuming student, harbors any compassion for the stern schoolmaster.

The film’s title refers to a translation of Agamemnon, the so-called Browning Version of the classical play. Taplow finds a second-hand copy of the book, which he gives to Crocker-Harris as a farewell gift. This simple sentiment and Taplow's gentle inscription inside the book lead to a devastating emotional catharsis for Crocker-Harris. His farewell address to the school is both tearless confessional and understated plea for redemption.

Context, Significance of the Film
Only the most jaded viewer would dismiss The Browning Version as much ado about nothing, although a brief plot outline could give this impression. The characters are unpleasant, stiff, and devoid of feeling. Their plights are petty and mostly self-inflicted. Only when we discover their inner pain, the remorse that comes with the realization of a wasted life, do we feel pity for the universal humanity grown stagnant in their souls. At first blush the film seems similar to another classic dealing with a retiring English teacher, but The Browning Version is the very antithesis of the uplifting Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Directed with remarkable restraint by Anthony Asquith, the film draws most of its tension from Redgrave's career-defining performance and the screenplay by Terence Rattigan, which he adapted from his one-act play. Rattigan and Redgrave took best screenplay and acting honors at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. Redgrave also takes credit for launching two other impressive thespian careers, those of his daughters Vanessa and Lynn. As Millie's lover, Ronald Howard displays a convincing crisis of conscience that elevates his character beyond that of a mere cad (trivia note: he is the son of Leslie Howard, who played Ashley in Gone With the Wind). Brian Smith, who was 19 when he made this film, portrays the adolescent Taplow as a kind-hearted innocent, unsullied by the conniving adults in his prep school and the world beyond.

Technically, the film can stand as an equal with anything from the period by Asquith's British peers, notably David Lean (Great Expectations), Carol Reed (The Third Man), and Alfred Hitchcock (The 39 Steps, whose protagonist, Robert Donat, would later star in Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Here, Asquith uses stunning deep-focus cinematography to fill the frame with gloom and shadow—techniques reminiscent of The Third Man and Citizen Kane before it. The superb camerawork and taut direction cleverly obscure the visual limitations of what is essentially a filmed play.

This seldom-seen film deserves a wider audience, especially for the ripe dialogue and rich performances. Students of sharp cinematography will be absorbed by the crisp work of cameraman Desmond Dickinson, who also shot Asquith's The Importance of Being Earnest and, in 1948, had framed Hamlet for Laurence Olivier.

Noted British director Mike Figgis (Secrets and Lies), filmed the 1994 remake of The Browning Version with Albert Finney (Tom Jones). In an extensive video interview on this disc, Figgis calls the original film a work of subtle genius. He describes Crocker-Harris as "the ultimate passionate stoic"—a paradox of repression brought to life by Redgrave's spot-on performance. Beneath the teacher's barely contained restraint and self-loathing lurks a seething rage, coiled tightly like a venomous snake.

On the commentary track, film historian Bruce Eder describes the picture as a "heartbreaking study of rigidity." He notes that the teacher has over-intellectualized life to the exclusion of joy or any other emotion. Crocker-Harris has become so detached and disaffected that he is practically a bystander to his own existence. The character of wife Millie, Eder says, remains a villainess rivaled only by Lady Macbeth in all of English theater and film. Yet she is not entirely unsympathetic. Caught in the soul-deadening trap of a miserable marriage, both Millie and Crocker-Harris resort to vile, rhetorical torments in a futile effort to escape from their marital prison. Eder also supplies fascinating insights into the production, mainly historical aspects of the story and subversive content in the subtext. (Playwright Rattigan remained a closeted homosexual for much of his life, using his writing to explore—and possibly editorialize upon—the dysfunction he perceived in male-female relationships. Knowing this, it’s probably only a matter of time before an ambitious grad student writes a thesis comparing and contrasting Rattigan's work with the writings of Alan Ball, who won an Academy Award for his American Beauty screenplay.) Eder's running commentary provides excellent insight into the film and comes highly recommended.

The cineastes at The Criterion Collection present a flawless package, as is their custom, replete with generous extras, including a 1958 interview with Redgrave. Video and audio are pristine.

Asquith directs at a mannerly pace, building his themes methodically. Younger audiences weaned on flash-cutting and cursory character development may grow impatient with these unlikable characters. Anyone who has endured a miserable marriage (not least of which is the discovery that one’s ex-wife is a conniving sociopath), and survived the experience can relate to the quiet desperation on display in this film. But we ought to approach these stuffed shirts with compassion — or at least appalled fascination — in order to appreciate their plight. Redgrave's repressed professor, while an inspired creation, is still an arrogant and obnoxious man. Only in the final act does his essential humanity force its way to the surface. But it is Redgrave's ability to transform this unsympathetic man into a pitiable figure that ultimately makes the film such a rewarding experience. That, and the jaw-dropping dialogue. There are lines in this picture that slice clean to the bone.

Crocker-Harris gives his own valediction. Criterion receives high praise for its production and release of superb DVD packages, offering unsurpassed quality for the discriminating collector.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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