The back cover of the Criterion DVD describes "The Browning Version" (1951) as "a classic of British realism." This did not fill me with much hope as I envisioned another tedious film from the "kitchen sink" cycle, the British response to Italian neo-realism that produced only a few films of enduring interest ("The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" being the best of breed). I did not expect much. I was therefore quite pleasantly surprised when "The Browning Version" proved not to be nearly as stodgy or musty as it first appeared; in fact, the film carries quite a dramatic punch.
Professor Andrew Crocker-Harris has devoted his life to teaching classics at a prestigious English public school (in America, we would call it a private school). Due to a heart condition, he has been forced to resign from his teaching position and today is both the last day of term and his last day at the school. Though he has been at the school for years, not too many people seem all that sad about Andrew's departure. His students mock him for his rigid, authoritarian style and refer to him as "the Crock" behind his back. One student laughs when he hears about his professor's heart condition as the thought of the Crock having any heart at all is a riot.
The students are much fonder of science teacher Frank Hunter and his more down-to-earth style. Andrew's wife Millicent is also rather fond of Frank, and the two of them have been conducting a secret affair for some time now. At least they think it's a secret, but Andrew knows all about it; he just doesn't have the time or interest to do anything about it. Andrew Crocker-Harris keeps his life in strict order and his emotions firmly in check, but at the sunset of his career, and perhaps his life, he is forced to take survey of his accomplishments and finds them sorely lacking. After a life devoted to his work, he appears to have no friends at all… at least until an over-eager student named Taplow reaches out to "the Crock" and inadvertently changes his life.
"The Browning Version" is directed by Anthony Asquith (Mike Figgis directed a 1994 remake starring Albert Finney) who made quite a career for himself by adapting popular stage plays, including George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" (1938) and Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1952). "The Browning Version" is based on a play by Terrence Rattigan who collaborated with Asquith on several film projects. Rattigan, also a prolific screenwriter, wrote the film adaptation of his own play and greatly expanded his original material (the play took place entirely on a single set).
The success of the film hinges on two factors: first, Rattigan's well-crafted script and, second, the exceptional performance by Michael Redgrave as Andrew Crocker-Harris. Andrew has every intention of keeping a stiff upper lip as he white-knuckles his way through his last miserable day at the school, derided by his students, betrayed by his wife and even undermined by his headmaster (played by the distinctive Wilfred Hyde White) who won't even support his petition to receive a full pension. Redgrave brings a quiet dignity to the role that comes in handy when the emotional fireworks start going off at the midway point of the movie.
Just as Andrew is ready to pack up and leave, a new professor inadvertently lets slip that his students haven't just dubbed him "the Crock": they also call him "the Himmler of the Lower Fifth." Andrew is wounded: all his life's work and he is nothing more than a cruel joke to his students. At home, Andrew, still processing the Himmler insult, is visited by his student Taplow who has brought him a present, a translation of "Agamemnon" by Robert Browning. The two had previously discussed the work, and Andrew is deeply touched by this unsolicited act of kindness; he even cries, shocking his young pupil. Andrew feels renewed and shows his new prize to his wife who instantly snuffs out his new sense of hope, revealing that she had seen Taplow just that morning performing a mocking imitation of "the Crock." She grins wickedly as she tells her husband that Taplow was just trying to buy his teacher's favor (and an early promotion to the next grade) with a cheap used book.
In this remarkable sequence, Andrew rides an emotional roller coaster. He is knocked down, lifted up and knocked back down again, experiencing the very emotional lows and highs he had tried to suppress in himself for many years. The scenes could easily have degenerated into mawkishness, but Redgrave holds it all together through sheer will. He manages somehow to simultaneously convey worlds of emotional depth while always maintaining a sense of restraint. When Andrew weeps, it is not an explosion but a brief release, a rare acknowledgement of the terrible stress he has been under. Later, when his wife thoroughly defangs him, we can see the pain in his eyes and his posture – she has scored a direct hit – but Redgrave plays it close to the vest.
Redgrave was primarily known as a stage actor, but here he eschews any of the grand gestures associated with the theater. We see it all in the way Andrew stiffens his posture and fusses with his jacket sleeves: he has been wounded deeply but will not let his wife know just how badly. Redgrave's carefully modulated performance is sincere, textured and utterly plausible. We sympathize with Crocker-Harris' plight, but we can also understand why his students mock him and, even more, why his wife (who seems, at first, so gratuitously callous) despises him. He is cold and self-centered, but also profoundly vulnerable and the film benefits greatly from this complex portrayal. Andrew is a man who thought he knew exactly what he wanted out of life, only to realize he's only just beginning to find his true path.
I am an unreconstructed auteurist with a marked preference for the experimental and formalist directors. As such, I often tend to underestimate the worth of well-written drama and good, solid craft. "The Browning Version" does not break any new ground or feature any signature directorial flourishes. It is a film built on a solid script (which, in turn, was built on a solid play) and an excellent lead performance. If, in some ways, it feels like little more than "a filmed play" it is one hell of a good filmed play and well worth your time.
The transfer is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The black and white photography is very crisp and this high definition digital transfer has been cleaned up remarkably well, as you expect from the Criterion team.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The sound design is fairly straightforward and all the dialogue is clearly mixed. Asquith only makes very sparse use of music on the soundtrack. Optional English language subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are included to support the audio.
This DVD is fairly light on extras for a Criterion release. However, it does offer a commentary track by film historian Bruce Eder along with a brief interview (6 min.) with Redgrave from 1958 and a longer interview with Mike Figgis (20 min.) in which he discusses why he loved the film enough to remake it.
"The Browning Version" won for best screenplay and best actor at the Cannes Film Festival. Redgrave generally focused more on his stage work, and supposedly viewed film acting a lesser calling, but he is completely at ease in this role. Asquith teamed up with Rattigan on other projects; including "While the Sun Shines" (1947) and "The Winslow Boys" (1948) but none of the other "Rattigasquith" (a derisive term coined by critic Raymond Durgnant) films quite earned the sterling reputation of "The Browning Version."