Beginning every school year, administrators attempt to inspire their staffs. Some have even resorted to screening movies about life changing educators dedicated to their profession—the true life story behind Stand and Deliver, the simplistic approach of Lean on Me, or the dreadfully sentimental Mr. Holland's Opus. Hell, I used to begin the year with a visual representation that expressed my hope that my English students would "find their voices" the way some do in Dead Poet's Society—complete with an obligatory standing on top of their desk moment. But I've now just now experienced an old film that delivers far more truth and inspiration about the teaching profession through its deceptively subtle drama in Anthony Asquith's outstanding 1951 film about English manners in a boys' school setting, The Browning Version. Thankfully The Criterion Collection has given the relatively obscure film its usual definitive treatment, giving it another day in the sun. Certainly, I would have overlooked this gem otherwise.
We all carry stereotypical images of stuffy middle aged Englishmen with us that are too frequently confirmed. As John Cleese's character explains in A Fish Called Wanda, "we'll all terrified of embarrassment. That's why we're so... dead. Most of my friends are dead, you know, we have these piles of corpses to dinner." One of these stoic English corpses occupies the central role of The Browning Version.
Based on Terrence Rattigan's stage play, under-appreciated 18 year classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) prepares to leave the school due to ill-health, but indifference marks his transition. His students could hardly care, as they refer to him as "the Crock" or the "Himmler of the lower 5th" as "tributes" to his droll manner and stickler for upholding discipline. Although the headmaster praises Crocker-Harris' quiet classroom discipline, he informs the retiring teacher that the school won't be granting him a pension. This, of course, doesn't please Crocker-Harris' wife, Millie (Jean Kent), a younger and more vivacious woman who has been cheating on him for years.
It's a sad and realistic view of a failure. People have committed suicide over far less, but Crocker-Harris doesn't even seem to possess enough gumption to carry out such an "active" solution to his problems. And that presents the viewer with a problem. Just how do we relate to this character? Rattigan doesn't give us another sympathetic character to follow despite beginning the film with a few "red herrings" though one sensitive student, Taplow (Brian Smith), offers a suggestion—he pities the man.
At that point we've hardly seen the protagonist. Employing the Harry Lime technique, we've heard various characters offer observations of "the Crock," and his replacement teacher is literally set to observe him in his classroom as Crocker-Harris makes his grand entrance. And what an arrival! Obviously striking "fear" in his charges, they silently endure the stodgy lesson (symbolic of the traditional British system). It's his last classroom session, yet he dryly berates his charges about their pitiful translations of Latin verse and assigns them to re-do the assignment. At one point, he even remarks to his observer that he must be bored. It's a dramatic devise that helps us relate to the pitiful teacher—the classroom is an ADD child's worst nightmare, but at least the instructor realizes that it's boring.
Poor Crocker-Harris has become a failure at everything in his life after being beaten into indifference. To express passion would only invite defeat, so he forfeits the contest by repressing his feelings. The cuckolded husband can neither deliver nor receive at home or in the classroom, yet he eventually grants us a glimpse of his original passion; it centers around a bit of verse he had once penned during more idealistic times and is brought to the forefront by Taplow, who hasn't allowed the classical British educational system transform his love of academics into stoic apathy yet.
The structure of the film retains its stage play roots, so it's a tightly constructed one act play with simple settings. Without much action, The Browning Version steadily unveils its characters with remarkably subtlety primarily through dialog but also through symbols, set design, and acting. Neither Redgrave and Kent have to announce that their marriage is a shambles; it's evident from their body language and facial expressions, and later confirmed over a "cold" lunch that is chillingly similar to the final stage of Welles' classic Citizen Kane marriage montage.
What really makes Asquith's film work so well is Redgrave's effective restrained acting that allows us gradually inside his truly pitiable character. It's no easy task to grant the audience access to such a cold and repressed individual, yet Redgrave succeeds in peeling away his character with tremendous subtlety. This is no sentimental treatment, but serves as the thinking person's treatise about any person sidetracked from their original dream. Specifically, Andrew Crocker-Harris represents the "Willy Loman" of the educational system, but Redgrave opens him just enough for everyone to relate to and reflect on—the honest, hard working person who sees his youthful dreams trampled on by the sheer weight of a mundane life. And there's a cathartic therapy derived from experiencing Redgrave's character grapple with his admitted failures.