Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Browning Versions

I must have seen Anthony Asquith's (1) beautiful film of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version (1951) when I was not much older than Taplow, the boy in the "lower fifth" whose school master is the formidable Andrew (the "Croc") Crocker-Harris. It reminded me then, as it reminded everyone, of Goodbye Mr. Chips, without Petula Clark or the London Blitz. It featured what I still regard as one of the finest film performances, Michael Redgrave's in the role he introduced to the London stage in 1948.

The rest of the film was somewhat limited by the respectability of the production, with Rattigan himself writing the film treatment, and by Rattigan's plotting. Crocker-Harris comes off as a trifle stodgy and dull, but hardly worthy of the nickname "Himmler of the Lower Fifth".

The most memorable scene was written expressly for the film (the play ends the night before when Crocker-Harris announces to his termagant wife Millie that they are separating). It is Crocker-Harris's
valedictory address to the assembled students and school faculty.(2) I find the scene exquisitely moving every time I see it, even if it is a far too melodramatic finish to the film.

The Rattigan play was remade by Mike Figgis in 1994, with Albert Finney playing Crocker-Harris. Figgis is an idiosyncratic director, who was clearly infatuated with the model and actress Saffron Burrowes for awhile. He is an actor's director, but he is always better with his actresses, making Elizabeth Shue's performance in Leaving Las Vegas a splendid consolation for the dreadful Nicolas Cage (Cage won the Oscar, of course).

Figgis couldn't resist updating the old-fashioned play, mostly by peppering the student population with the sons of rich foreigners (Arabs), by giving the role of Frank Hunter to an American actor, Matthew Modine, and by greatly improving the role of Millie, played by the eternally toothsome Greta Scacchi.

Despite these "improvements" on the original, the film belongs to Finney. A fine actor himself, it was brave of him to attempt the role that Redgrave made famous. He is a bit too precious at times, and overdoes his mannerisms (he sometimes sounds like he's imitating Redgrave). His emotional outburst at Taplow giving him a copy of the Browning translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus is more emphatic, in keeping with Finney's more expansive performance. Though moving, it is far less dramatically effective than Redgrave's, which is so reticent that it barely registers to a modern audience. Figgis actually cheats a little by showing how Crocker-Harris warms to a reading from Aeschylus in front of his students (with obvious parallels to his own Clytemnestra). It makes his reputation as the "Hitler [not Himmler] of the Lower Fifth" inexplicable.

Figgis keeps the climactic scene of Crocker-Harris's final address, changing a word here and there. But the scene, even with an anxious Millie standing in the back, is not nearly as moving as the original.

In an interview on the DVD, Finney criticizes Redgrave's performance for its reliance on flimsy details, like distractedly dusting off his robes while delivering his lines. Unlike Redgrave's, Finney's performance lacks a center cohesion.

But the biggest liberty that Figgis takes with Rattigan's play is in making Millie far more human. In the play and the Asquith film, she is portrayed as monstrously cruel. For example, when Frank asks Crocker-Harris how long he has known about the affair with his wife, he tells him "from the beginning" and that his informant was none other than Millie. Figgis omits this terrible exchange.

In Rattigan's version, Crocker-Harris's marriage is almost unimaginably horrible, like an airless crypt. Figgis makes the marriage simply unhappy and Millie somewhat snide but still passionately human. Figgis casting of Greta Scacchi as Millie also helps rehabilitate the role. Scacchi has always been an unsung heroine of mine, ever since I saw her in a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" TV version of Camille in 1984. Aside from great beauty and a voluptuous body that she generously unveiled now and then (The Coca-Cola Kid springs to mind), she is a splendid actress.

Near the end of the film, after she is supposed to have gone and Albert Finney gives his parting speech, she returns to watch him from the back of the hall, and weeps with heartbroken happiness at his triumph. In the last shot, outdoors, they exchange gazes, each perhaps recalling what they once felt for the other. It is perhaps the most significant improvement on the original Browning Version.

(1) Asquith was an occasionally superb director: Pygmalion (1938), The Way to the Stars (1945), The Winslow Boy (1948), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).
(2) The name of the school isn't mentioned, but Rattigan's own Harrow School was the model.

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