One of the things I enjoy the most about the Criterion Collection is discovering hidden gems within the collection. There are always the splashier, more famous titles that we all know and love for good reason. But every once in a while I pick up a movie that I have heard little to nothing about, one I have never seen before and find interesting and give it a go only to find that it is an amazing film that deserves to be talked about more. THE BROWNING VERSION is one such film.
Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) is a master of classics at an English public school. Getting on in years, he has been forced to leave his position due to poor health. At the suggestion of his doctor, Crocker-Harris is taking a lesser position at a smaller school and leaving his classics behind. His current class is less than dismayed at this turn of events. “The Crock”, as the boys call him, is not well liked either by his students or his peers. He is pedantic, reserved to the point of being stuffy, and generally unable to endear himself to his fellow man.
Someone who does not suffer from this problem is Crocker-Harris’ wife, Millie (Jean Kent). In fact she has made many friends, including the science master Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick) with whom she has been carrying on an affair. She despises her husband, seeing him as weak, ineffectual, and totally absorbed in his work. Clearly she had different ideas as to what her husband would be doing with his life and career when they got married. She has given up on any hope of happiness with her husband, and her husband has given up any hope of happiness in his life at all.
Crocker-Harris is aware that he is disliked, aware that his students not only dislike him but loathe him as well. He also knows that his colleagues have no regard for him and that his career is not what he wanted to make of it. He knows that his wife dislikes him and that any semblance of a happy marriage has disappeared long ago. He feels himself a failure, not only as a teacher but as a man, and he has resigned himself to being a failure for the rest of his days. When he meets his successor and hears that fellow staffers refer to him as “The Himmler of fifth level”, he is hurt but accepts that this is only proper and just considering what his life is. It isn’t until one of his students, a lad named Taplow, brings him a good-bye present that things begin to change for Crocker-Harris.
THE BROWNING VERSION is based on a one act play written by Terence Rattigan, and was adapted for the screen by the same. While the play ends when Crocker-Harris receives his gift from Taplow, the film continues on and gives a much more complete and emotionally satisfying ending. The fact that Rattigan himself wrote this new ending is perhaps more reassuring that this was the ending that he always meant to infer with his play.
If you are hoping to find something similar to GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS then I am afraid you will be extremely disappointed. THE BROWNING VERSION is an examination not only of a man’s life and his family, but also of failures of all kinds. The failure of unfulfilled dreams, of incompatible love turned into mutual destruction, of disconnection, and resignation to ones lot in life. It also asks the question, when is it too late to change or is it ever too late?
I have heard this film described as a man looking back on his life and realizing that he has been a failure in his job and his marriage. But I think that that is a very simplistic view. I think that Crocker-Harris was aware that he had failed in many aspects of his life but it wasn’t until he was presented with the end of his current position and with a possibility of some kindness and consideration that he must confront this failure and decide what is to be done. Tallow’s gift echoes pieces of Crocker-Harris’ past, pieces that he had given up and that those around him have forgotten. For a moment when he receives this gift her can see a possibility of happiness once again if only he could figure out how to get it.
Mrs. Crocker-Harris could easily been seen as a purely nasty person but I think that she has been disappointed just as her husband has, but her disappointment comes from the man she married and his inability to be the person she wants him to be. When she realizes she can’t inspire or affect him to become that person, she decides to destroy him instead so that she can at least have some satisfaction from watching him to respond to something of her making. While many of the people in THE BROWNING VERSION are mean, I would not say any of them are bad. Rather they are all unhappy and dissatisfied in their own ways, and they each respond to this dissatisfaction differently.
This film also presents a fairly unflattering portrait of public education staff life. Teachers are shown to be petty, rude, and gossipy. Another teacher is leaving along with Crocker-Harris but he is leaving to play cricket and the difference between the two farewells is obvious and hurtful. When the head master asks Crocker-Harris to allow the younger master to give his farewell speech second, a slight to the more senior master, because the expected response and applause will be far greater than the one for Crocker-Harris, we can feel the harshness of the comment because it is something that still happens today. Popular sports outweighing academia once again.
Finally, Michael Redgrave is phenomenal. He carries this film utterly and he manages to portray Crocker-Harris not only as a unpleasant person but also as one that we can sympathize with. We can dismiss him as simply a man who has failed at life but if we take the time to really listen to the words being said and really see the nuances in Redgrave’s performance we will see that here is a man who once had hope and promise, and through a series of decisions has lost that. There is tragedy here and it is a tragedy that we can all relate to as who among us hasn’t had a moment where we wondered, “What if?”