The Browning Version (1951)

by | Aug 29, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Browning Version (1951)

Starring:  Michael Redgrave, Jean Kent, Nigel Patrick, Brian Smith, Ronald Howard, Wilfred Hyde White
Studio:  The Criterion Collection
Video:  1.33:1 Full Frame B&W
Audio:  DD Mono
Extras:  Mike Figgis Interview (19 min), Audio Commentary, Michael Redgrave Interview (6 min)
Length:  89 minutes
Rating:  ****

In what can best be described as a one act play, The Browning Version
follows an elderly Latin schoolmaster at his final days at a school
where he has spent his entire career.  Due to his health he is
retiring and his shrewish wife won’t leave him alone about receiving
his pension, which is in question.  She takes every chance she has
to demean and belittle him.  All he has left is an immense pride
and devotion to his work with the students—what he believes to be a
most honorable position. But as the day progresses he becomes aware of
how he has been drifting out of touch with the hearts and minds of his
students.  It is starting to become apparent to him that he is a
failure.  As is typical of those of the formal school of thought,
he doesn’t openly show feelings, conducts his classes with extreme
discipline, and takes the emotion and romanticism out of all the works
that he teaches.  While the science class laughs and is generally
boisterous and excited about learning, the Latin class is quiet and
filled with a feeling of dislike.  One student is the exception to
this—a young man named Taplow, who admires the old man.  Taplow
and another teacher at the school are really Crocker-Harris’ only
support network and are hardly sufficient.  At the end of the
film, the schoolmaster confesses his feelings and apologizes to all; he
is met with an almost unending clamor of applause—quite an unusual
departing gesture and one that signifies acceptance and understanding.

The performance delivered by Redgrave in this film is quite
exceptional.  The interview with him surely makes him seem quite
humble about it and shows him clearly as a professional at his
craft.  The director knew how to coax the superior performance out
of Redgrave and set the stage for him to be unfettered in his portrayal
of the weariness and self-loathing of the character.  One of the
most memorable scene in the film (apart from the ending), is an
uncomfortable moment between Taplow and the elder schoolmaster. 
Taplow had purchased The Browning Version of the Greek play Agamemnon
to give to his teacher and inscribed a sentimental note in Greek. 
For a moment we see the schoolmaster’s feelings come through like an
open floodgate—most uncontrollably—again realizing that much of his
success with the students was illusionary.  Soon afterward, when
he regains some of his composure, it is clear that he is filled with
glee as he mentions the gift to his wife.  She is quick to point
out an earlier incident where Taplow had been impersonating him and
suggests that the gift was a way to save his promotion to the next
grade.  As quick as the onset of the happiness at the gift, the
viewer sees the life sap out of the schoolmaster.  It’s about as
good as any dramatic scene in any film at evoking an emotional response
within the viewer and at the same time illustrating exactly who the
characters are.

Some may be familiar with this film from a powerful remake directed by
Mike Figgis in 1994 starring Albert Finney, Greta Scacchi, Matthew
Modine, and Julian Sands.  In the extras on this DVD there is an
interview with Figgis talking about the brilliance of British films of
the time and specifically about Terence Rattigan, the man responsible
for the screenplay of this film and the play that it is based
upon.  Figgis’ discussion of stoicism and his simplification of
the character of Crocker-Harris and explanation of the British school
system will help the viewer better understand the character and
film.  Another extra is an interview with the star of the film,
Michael Redgrave, which was aired on British television in 1958. 
It only touches lightly upon his character in the film, but is
illuminating nonetheless.  An important man behind the scenes is
the director, Anthony Asquith.  He had a skill for adaptation —
although he had been more adventurous and flamboyant in his direction
of earlier films, he had become more restrained and understated in his
later movies.  There is much more on him in the accompanying
booklet that is worthy of further examination.  The Browing
Version may seem a bit slow by today’s standards of films, but its
ability to draw characters so well and preserve the dramatic element
without perfect believability is impressive.  It’s a classic and
shouldn’t be missed.

-Brian Bloom
 

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