Monday, January 11, 2021

Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version

Michael Redgrave as Crocker-Harris.
After 18 years at a prestigious English boys' school, Andrew Crocker-Harris has accepted a less-stressful position teaching at an institution for "backward boys." Once a promising scholar, Crocker-Harris's career stalled many years ago and he's now plagued by ill health. He won't leave as a beloved teacher. The boys refer to him unaffectionately as "The Crock" and privately call him Himmler, a cruel reference to his disciplinary ways.

Terence Rattigan's film adaptation of his 1948 stage play The Browning Version traces Crocker-Harris's final days at his old school. It's a character study--an engrossing one--and the opening scenes paint a portrait of Crocker-Harris through the eyes of a colleague, his replacement, and a student. Later, Crocker-Harris reveals personal insights to each of those characters. He confides to his new colleague that he's well aware of his wife's infidelity, but partially blames himself for their disastrous marriage. He also reveals his failure as a teacher and that he gave up trying to reach his students long ago. Finally, he inadvertently shows his inner emotions to a student who unexpectedly gives him a thoughtful farewell gift.

Nigel Patrick as a colleague.
Rattigan's one-act play ended with Crocker-Harris receiving the gift. For the film version, Rattigan expands the story, providing the audience with a more complete look at the schoolmaster's likely future. The film ends with Crocker-Harris addressing a school assembly and departing from his prepared speech.

Acclaimed British film and stage actor Eric Portman played Crocker-Harris when the play opened in the West End. However, he turned down the opportunity to do the film in 1951. Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith then turned to Michael Redgrave, who was just 43 years old. It was a brilliant decision, for Redgrave breathes life into the ageing schoolmaster. He captures the "look" of a man that considers his life a failure as well as little idiosyncrasies such as Crocker-Harris's obsession with punctuality and following rules.

Brian Smith as the student Taplow.
Redgrave's supporting cast includes nice turns from Nigel Patrick, as Crocker-Harris's colleague and his wife's lover, and Brian Smith as the student Taplow. Jean Kent has a difficult role as Millie Crocker-Harris. First, her character is unlikable from the beginning, but she also comes across as too blatantly dismissive of her husband. A more subtle approach might have come across as more believable. Frankly, it's difficult to see what Millie's lover could ever have seen in such a cruel, self-centered woman.

Terence Rattigan's plays also served as the basis for two other strongly-recommended films: The Winslow Boy (1948) and Separate Tables (1958).

Incidentally, The Browning Version has been remade multiple times with stars such as Albert Finney, Peter Cushing, and John Gielgud. These are fine actors, but it's hard to imagine anyone being better than Michael Redgrave in the lead role.

3 comments:

  1. In recent years, I have come to taking Michael Redgrave for granted. I think a viewing of The Browning Version should set me on the right path.

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  2. Great review. I completely agree about the wife. Too bad the author made her such a caricature.

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  3. Oh yes, Michael Redgrave is utterly fabulous in this role. He breaks your heart.

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