The Browning Version follows the final days of term for a classics schoolmaster. Due to his ill health, Andrew Crocker-Harris is forced into an early retirement. However, the prospect of this seems far from unwelcome for his students. For Crocker-Harris seems to have been, by all accounts, a thoroughly awful teacher and human being. One morning, the sudden recognition that he is despised by his boys, his colleagues and his unfaithful wife drives Crocker-Harris to the dreadfully depressing conclusion: he has been a failure at apparently every aspect of life.
In the depths of his misery however, Crocker-Harris is greeted by an act of kindness from a young student of his. A boy by the name of Taplow gives his teacher a parting gift: a copy of the Agamemnon with a verse translation by Robert Browning. This unprompted act of generosity elicits tears from the customarily icy Crocker-Harris, and prompts him to contemplate his life so far, and how to proceed from here into the future.
Greatest of all the admirable performances of the film is that of Michael Redgrave’s as the ol’ Crock. Painfully dull and pathetically cruel, it is hardly surprising that Mr. Crocker-Harris is nicknamed the ‘Himmler of the Lower-Fifth’. One of the most distinctive aspects of the characterisation of Crocker-Harris though is his somewhat hyperbolic affectations. Redgrave plays almost pantomimically, and many times, he is borderline comical. It is only later however that we realise that this has been a deliberate decision, not on the part of Redgrave per se, but rather his character Crocker-Harris. For many years, the schoolmaster has been feeling an acute sense of isolation; he notices the boys are amused by his little mannerisms – the hands plunged deep into the pockets, the peculiar inflections of the voice – and so he turns them up a few notches. He exaggerates these mannerisms in the hope that the boys notice him a little more; he creates all sorts of elaborate ruses just to get some people to laugh at him awhile. Pitiful stuff, indeed.
Fresh from the pen of Terence Rattigan, the writer of the original one-act play of the same name, The Browning Version is beautifully scripted and perfectly paced. Director Anthony Asquith keeps all cinematic devices simple and unobtrusive in order to the bring to the forefront these fundamental elements. Lighting, camera-placement, editing – even music is muted in order to showcase the two most important aspects on which the piece is founded: the gorgeously constructed screenplay and the great actors who bring the words to life.
In employing this simple but very potent style, Asquith accomplishes something so rarely done successfully on the silver screen: he brings to us the thrilling blend of electricity and striking intimacy of the theatre. And rarely does one see a cinematic style so delightfully felicitous. For the film is, fundamentally, the tragic tale of Andrew Crocker-Harris – an essentially good man who has lost his way. In other words, Crocker-Harris is not unlike the hero Agamemnon (who very appositely dies at the hands of his scheming wife). Thus by letting the atmosphere arise organically rather than through cinematic manipulation, Asquith melds two extremely antithetical moods – Greek tragedy and the stuffiness of an English public school – to create a stiflingly dramatic style.
However, it would be wrong to see the story of Crocker-Harris as a tragedy in the classical sense (or actually any sense for that matter). For while Aeschylus’ Agamemnon hurtles down and down to a violent death, Crocker-Harris rises up from his wretched circumstances. Although he cannot undo the mistakes of the past, and the road ahead does lie quite uncertain, the film ultimately arrives at a moment when his world is set finally right – if only for a moment.
The pinnacle of the The Browning Version is the rousing but astonishingly unsentimental farewell from Andrew Crocker-Harris. He tells the students what it means to be a good teacher, something Crocker-Harris now knows he can never claim to have been. “Sympathy. Encouragement. Humanity.” Every student has every right to demand these qualities of his teacher, he tells us . Never before did he think to furnish these qualities, but now, finally, Crocker-Harris begins to understand. We the audience recognise something too: the trio – sympathy, encouragement, humanity – is reflected in Taplow’s giving of the Agamemnon; it was this gracious act which brought Crocker-Harris back from the shadows in the first place.