Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"The Browning Version" (1951) Dir: Anthony Asquith

What I Remember:

I think my college girlfriend who loved British cinema turned me on to this one (along with "The Rocking Horse Winner”). There was much for me to relate to. The private school I went to in New York was based on one of these Southern English Public Schools depicted in the film. Episcopalian in foundation, and until I was in 10th grade (they called it “4th Form”) sexually segregated, my school was a real throwback. Also until 10th Grade, which for my class was 1969/1970, we wore jackets and ties every day, recited “The Lord’s Prayer” every day, and every day started with Chapel. In the maelstrom that was the ’60’s, this all felt to us like being educated in some archival museum, and much of the faculty belonged in one of the museum’s exhibits.

There were some great teachers at my school, some not so great, and some outright horrible. Some were nice, some cruel. There seemed to be no connection between how cruel the method and how effective it was. One of the nicest teachers at the school was the best I ever had. He taught Trig, and helped our entire class ace our Math SAT’s. There was another teacher who regularly nailed us with chalk, scolded and punished us brutally, and I learned nothing in his class except how to be a bully. So much for “Whiplash”. As a jazz music teacher myself, I found that film ridiculous, insulting and most of all, absurd.

“The Crock”, I recall, was the nickname for the main character in “the Browning Version”, and as portrayed by Michael Redgrave, he reminded me of some of those hated instructors from my youth. Dour and stodgy, he was universally detested by students and his wife. As a forced retirement approaches, he must come to grips with his legacy. Here is the most execrable of anti-heroes, and yet a young student sees him as a good teacher who simply needs to get in touch with his own humanity. 

My recollection is that this film is a moving tale of redemption, featuring a main character that you abhor. Risky stuff for 1951, and I think that’s why it is so special.

After re-watching:

“You see, my dear Hunter, she is really quite as much to be pitied as I am. We are both of us interesting subjects for your microscope.”- Andrew Crocker-Harris


School master Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is retiring from his job as Greek and Latin teacher at a proper English public school. The reasons given are ill health (his heart), but it also seems like the school would like him to leave. Added to this difficulty, he is being denied a pension from the school, because he does not qualify. He is disliked by faculty and student body alike, and seems to have no joy in his work or marriage. His wife, Millie (Jean Kent) is having an affair with a science teacher (Nigel Patrick), and makes no attempt to hide it. As his last day at the school approaches, a young student (Brian Smith) takes interest in him, and tries to revive the emotions for his work that evaporated over the years.


I guess I really didn’t recognize this kind of subtlety back in my early 20’s, but now it seems obvious. 
SPOILER ALERT!!!! Lord, how I hate that phrase, but sometimes it’s necessary. It won’t be a plot spoiler, but it’s so clear to me now that Crock is homosexual. 

In that era (mid 20th Century), you had three choices as a gay man:

  1. Live your life as an openly gay man, eschewing career opportunities, embracing life as a pariah.
  2. Live the straight life, marry a woman you cannot satisfy, be miserable and make her miserable.
  3. Join the clergy.

The film is based on a one-act play by the great writer Terrence Rattigan, who did eventually declare his homosexuality despite Britain’s harsh laws. Knowing that, the clarity of his message comes through when it did not so many years ago. Crocker-Harris chose number 2, and by this decision, became a heartless beast. 

In one of the most memorable scenes the film has to offer, he and Frank Hunter, who has been sleeping with Millie, have a heart to heart. Crocker-Harris describes “two kinds of love”, by which we are meant to infer platonic and carnal. He says that his wife wanted one, and he wanted the other. She is beautiful, and he is brilliant. Go ahead, show me a straight, smart dude that doesn’t want to have sex with a hot woman. Didn’t you guys ever see “Weird Science”? “Revenge of the Nerds”?

So maybe, “two kinds of love” is a thinly veiled reference to “gay” and “straight”. Considering the sexuality of the screenwriter, and also probably the director, this is not a stretch. 

Gay men forced to live a straight life are unhappy, and often do bad things. See Roy Cohn, Jerry Sandusky, J. Edgar Hoover, Dennis Hastert. Compared to these bastards, old Crocker-Harris’ crimes seem miniscule. His bad behavior is confined to not be nurturing to his students, using the strict schoolmaster veneer to hide his lack of passion for the work, his wife, his life.

It turns out that my thinking that the audience detests Crock throughout the film was totally off-base. Millie comes across as a harridan, and her willingness to hurt her husband as deeply and often as possible makes her positively villainous. She and the phony headmaster (played perfectly by Wilfred Hyde-White) are detestable, and about midway through the movie you begin to feel sympathy for Crocker-Harris.
That moment comes when young Taplow brings him a parting gift, the titular (Robert) “Browning Version” translation of “Agamemnon”, having discovered that Crocker-Harris had done his own translation of the classic Greek tragedy. Crock breaks down, showing the first true emotion for his character in the film, and it is stunning. 

Crocker-Harris does not really gain redemption, but what he does end up with is a moment of truth, a moment of self-awareness, one he shares with the student body at his farewell speech. He abruptly stops his prepared, pedantic recitation, and begins to go off his script. He says that the only thing he needs to say in farewell are three words. At this point you’re thinking they will be: “Go fuck yourselves”, “Where’s my pension?” or “So long, Slappy!”.

But what he says is, “I am sorry”. It is unexpected, and incredibly moving. 


Director Anthony Asquith was the son of a Prime Minister (H.H. Asquith) and the infamous, eccentric Margot Tennant. Apparently he was much more of a closeted type than the playwright Rattigan. However there was much speculation about “Puffin”’s proclivities, and these facts again lead me to my conclusion about the underlying story here. 
Another reason for Asquith’s repression was that his father, as Home Secretary, ordered the arrest of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for homosexuality, a crime in Victorian England. Asquith eventually directed a version of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 1952, maybe as an apology of sorts. 

The film is not striking visually, but it really doesn’t have to be. It was shot at Pinewood studios, the exteriors being at the Sherborne School in Dorset. Everything looks right; Chapel, classroom, faculty residences, the sporting fields. 

It is in drawing out the riveting performances, especially Redgrave’s, that Asquith’s guidance is evident. Obviously there is some personal resonance and experience that Asquith could draw upon. Redgrave himself eventually admitted to “bisexuality” in an interview with his son who was helping him write an autobiography. We should be glad that he went both ways, since he fathered two of the screen’s finest actresses in Vanessa and Lynn. More on Redgrave later.

Asquith makes an interesting decision about the use of music. It brackets the film, but is not used at all during the body of the story. He is quoted as saying that he wanted the story to feel real, and that music would take that away. I feel like it was the right choice. For me, far too often music is used to amplify emotions felt by the characters, and that feels manipulative. I prefer when music is used to provide a mood, whether it be meditative, ominous, anxious or joyous. Also music used to evoke a time and place is effective, as in “Barry Lyndon”, or “O Brother Where Art Thou?”. Oh yeah…those Goddamned pipes in “Tunes of Glory”.


“The Browning Version” is not only dominated by Michael Redgrave, it is overpowered. This may be one of the screen’s greatest performances. There were moments when I wanted to stop the film and just rewind to watch his expressions. Superficially it seems one-note, but there is so much going on under the surface. He is so heinous in the classroom, so pedantic and petty. He is terribly withdrawn socially, and embodies the awkwardness of someone who is uncomfortable everywhere. When his big breakdown comes, he is folded over and you don’t even see him crying until he is drying the tears and trying to collect himself. The sudden crack in his stoic veneer is shocking and poignant. 

The other performances are over-shadowed to say the least. Jean Kent does a fine job of going from love-struck aging ingenue to harpy to ass-kisser. It could have come off as hammy, but she keeps everything in check just enough. Nigel Patrick as the sympathetic cuckolder Hunter is a perfect foil for our lead. Worth mentioning is a very strong turn by young Brian Smith as Taplow; all wide-eyed and open-minded.

I enjoyed the great Wilfred Hyde-White portrayal of the glad-handing headmaster. I believe that Peter Cook’s hilarious turn as a landed aristocrat in one of the episodes in “Bedazzled” is totally based on this character. 


What seemed to my memory as a film about teaching methods and personality disorders was completely upended by the true theme of this movie; the hazards of disavowing your own true self, and the collateral damage that can do to your family, friends and career. 
The personal struggles of playwright, director and lead actor help make this a powerful drama, far ahead of its time. 

Of course, now I am wondering of one of those sons-of-bitches who made my school years miserable were actually unhappy, closeted gay men. It makes me forget about the rage I had, and feel sorry for them.

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭

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