The Browning Version

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #294: Anthony Asquith’s The Browning Version.

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Summer is over and since all the chil­dren are head­ing back to school I thought I’d bet­ter pick up where I left off 4 months ago and start watch­ing Criterion Collection films again. This film hap­pens to take place at the end of a school year, but no mat­ter. The Browning Version is a movie based on Terence Rattigan’s play of the same name. Rattigan also wrote the screen­play for this film, which won an award at Cannes over 50 years ago. The ac­tion flows around an old clas­sics teacher named Andrew Crocker-Harris who has been bro­ken down by his wife and his nearly 20 years of teach­ing.

Crocker-Harris is every­thing that peo­ple loathe in a per­son, al­ways punc­tual, un­bend­ingly re­spect­ful of every rule, no mat­ter how triv­ial, and ap­par­ently with­out a sense of hu­mor or any other emo­tion. He is con­sis­tently re­ferred to as a dead man, a corpse, and a man with­out a soul. His stu­dents live in fear of him, his wife has cuck­olded him, and he is be­ing re­placed by a younger more mod­ern teacher. Even the es­tab­lish­ment is cast­ing him aside with­out a pen­sion and com­pound­ing the in­jury by ask­ing him to give his give up his place of honor at the vale­dic­tory con­vo­ca­tion.

There is one young stu­dent who feels sorry for the chap and makes ef­forts to break through the ac­cre­tion of ap­a­thy that has im­mo­bi­lized the once bril­liant Crocker-Harris. His in­ter­est in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon re­minds Crocker-Harris of his past youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance re­gard­ing the same play. He opens up slightly and tells young Taplow that he once at­tempted his own trans­la­tion in rhyming cou­plets, but never com­pleted it. Later, Taplow buys Crocker-Harris the Browning ver­sion of the Agamemnon, and in­scribes, in Greek, the ded­i­ca­tion “God from afar looks gra­ciously on a gen­tle mas­ter.” [For an in­ter­est­ing re­flec­tion and re­verse en­gi­neer­ing of the Greek us­age in the film see here.] This ded­i­ca­tion, com­ing as it does at the end of a day full of blows, touches Crocker-Harris so deeply that he be­gins to cry. Though his wife still tries to crush his soul, this small act even­tu­ally gives Crocker-Harris the strength nec­es­sary to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for his past and the de­ter­mi­na­tion to do bet­ter in the time left him.

Two the­matic el­e­ments were highly vis­i­ble to me in this film. The first is the ob­ses­sion with time as a diegetic mo­tive. Crocker-Harris, of course, is the most ob­sessed with it, and the con­stant bell-ring­ing and de­c­la­ra­tions of what time it is [for din­ner, for fire­works, for tea] make it seem as though de­spite all his ef­forts, time is merely pass­ing him by. The sec­ond theme is the film’s def­i­nite re­la­tion and in­ter­ac­tion with The Agamemnon. In many ways Crocker-Harris’s life mir­rors the life of Agamemnon, even down to the sup­port­ing char­ac­ters, but the dif­fer­ence is that Agamemnon is phys­i­cally killed, while Crocker-Harris is only soul-dead. This cre­ates an in­ter­est­ing space for di­ver­sion from the orig­i­nal and al­lows the film more room for con­tem­po­rary con­cerns.

Asquith’s shot se­lec­tion is ex­cel­lent as well. Crocker-Harris is usu­ally seen in pro­file or slightly from be­hind, adding a sense of alien­ation and un­ap­proach­a­bil­ity to his al­ready tac­i­turn na­ture. Even when he breaks down and cries, we only see his back. Only to­ward the end, when Crocker-Harris be­gins to take charge of his life again, does he start to take an ac­tive po­si­tion in the shot. Michael Redgrave’s act­ing is su­perb and fits hand-in-glove with Rattigan’s screen­play. While the film isn’t flashy at any point, for fans of drama and el­e­gance, this is a film to see.

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Criterion Essay by Geoffrey MacNab
• Transcription and clip of Crocker-Harris’s farewell speech.
Wikipedia ar­ti­cle on Terence Rattigan’s play.
• The Browning ver­sion of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon at perseus​.tufts​.edu. [I’m get­ting flash­backs]

One thought on “The Browning Version

  1. Can you e-mail me the tran­script of Crocker-Harris’ farewell ad­dress. many thanks!

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