Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Browning Version (Asquith, 1951)

Unless you are familiar with the original play or have read the synopsis carefully, there is a period of time at the beginning of The Browning Version where it is unclear just who the subject of our story will be. With the setting as one of those English schools that are frequently used in the movies as a demonstration of government's capacity for soul-crushing rigidity, you may think that you are in store for something like Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct or Lindsay Anderson's If ... in which the focus is on the students and how they manage to keep the human desire for freedom and imaginative exploration alive in the face of stern discipline. Perhaps that young boy who drops his hat and consequently arrives late to school will become the focus and we will see him struggle against authority. Or perhaps the film will be about that new teacher with the fresh young face who has arrived on the scene and how he inspires the apathetic youth to find vitality, inspiration and joy in those dusty old classics. While the themes of rigidity versus personal freedom are still present, The Browning Version tackles them from a different perspective: by making the monster into the sympathetic protagonist.

Michael Redgrave (father to Lynn and Vanessa) plays an emotionally cold, widely reviled master with the rather unfortunate name of Andrew Crocker-Harris, known to his students as 'The Crock' as well as other worse things that are whispered behind his back. In early scenes, we see that his sole admirable quality as a teacher is his ability to maintain order. He is knowledgeable about his subject matter, the early Greek play, Agamemnon; yet, he strangles the life out of it by deriding his students' attempts at translation and focusing on grammatical minutiae rather than the exhilarating story of passion and violence. In scenes outside of class, we see that he is unable to maintain such neat and tidy order in his own life. Despite his fastidious insistence on keeping the clocks running accurately, his wife is engaged in a rather indiscreet affair with the school's science teacher. And although the headmaster publicly declares the great sadness that will meet Crocker-Harris' imminent retirement, it is painfully clear that his lifetime as an educator has earned him little to no respect from the people with which he has come into contact.

In the way that it places us at a critical moment in time and asks us to look back on a man's lifetime consumed by failure, The Browning Version is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's great film, Winter Light, or even Dickens' A Christmas Carol. As his farewell date approaches, Crocker-Harris is forced to reflect upon the sum total of his life, and he finds that it really hasn't added up to all that much. In scenes that approach the naked cruelty of a Neil LaBute script, Crocker-Harris must confront his wife, his headmaster, as well as the man who has made him a cuckold. He must also suffer supreme indignity before finally facing up to the students who hold him in utter contempt. The result is a film that despite its modest focus is surprisingly captivating and emotionally harrowing. Redgrave is outstanding in the lead role, never making himself more likable than he needs to be, yet coloring the teacher with gentle sprinkles of life, helping us to envision the man who was once a highly decorated scholar. Note how he insists on the word 'gentle' during one key moment where he is translating from the Greek and you will see how Redgrave suggests the pulse beating beneath his stoic exterior.

The film builds towards a conclusion that may be on the outskirts of what might be considered realistic; however, it would difficult to deny it's cathartic power after witnessing one ordinary man put through the wringer and then find the desire to be extraordinary again. Sometimes it's nice to find yourself capable of a little sympathy for the devil.