Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Browning Version (1951)

[Requested, in a fashion, by drift wood.]

Michael Redgrave gives an extraordinary performance in Terrence Rattigan's meditation on stifling English mores and wasted lives. Redgrave plays Andrew Crocker-Harris, a straight-laced professor mocked by his charges, disliked by his peers and loathed by his wife. In most films, this man, stern to the point of being termed "the Himmler of the lower fifth," would be an easy target for ridicule, but Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith (whose solid direction lets the text stand on its own without letting it devolve into staginess) have other aims. Crocker-Harris is indeed a cold and emotionally dead man, but he did care once, and he still tries to give what he can in service to his job; compared to the sickening gladhanding and falsity exuded by Headmaster Frobisher (the scene where he tells Crocker-Harris that early retirement will divest him of his pension has the headmaster barely containing his amusement at crushing Andrew's spirit), Crocker-Harris seems almost noble. Rattigan's sharp script summons up unimaginable cruelties in the space of a few words, mainly in the scenes between Andrew and his wife, yet it also leaves room for us to see the tragedy of the professor's predicament. The stiff upper lip he was told to affect stiffened his heart as well; thus, we long to see this harsh but essentially decent man wriggle away from that which has kept him bowed for so long and find something better, happier, if even for a moment. I think the climactic speech is a bit of a miscalculation (it apparently wasn't in the original play), but it does also allow us this catharsis. After a life of failure, the victories for Crocker-Harris are small, but he takes them anyway.

Grade: B+


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