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Browning Version, The (1951)

Courtesy of Rainbow Media IFC and Alan Brodie Representation on behalf of the Estate of Terence Rattigan

Main image of Browning Version, The (1951)
35mm, black and white, 90 mins
DirectorAnthony Asquith
Production CompanyJavelin Films
ProducerTeddy Baird
ScreenplayTerence Rattigan
PhotographyDesmond Dickinson

Cast: Michael Redgrave (Andrew Crocker-Harris); Jean Kent (Millie Crocker-Harris); Nigel Patrick (Frank Hunter); Ronald Howard (Gilbert); Brian Smith (Taplow); Wilfrid Hyde White (Frobisher)

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Classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris is an old-fashioned disciplinarian who is widely disliked by his pupils. But with his marriage and health ailing, he is not as thick-skinned as he appears.

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Terence Rattigan's one-act play about the outwardly dislikable but inwardly intensely vulnerable classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris was regarded as one of the writer's major works from the moment of its 1948 premiere. Though adapted for film twice and television four times in English alone (there have also been several foreign-language broadcasts), by general consent the most successful version is the first, expanded by Rattigan himself, directed by regular collaborator Anthony Asquith, and featuring one of Michael Redgrave's career-best performances. It premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, winning Best Actor and Best Screenplay.

When we first meet Crocker-Harris, it's easy to see why he's nicknamed 'the crock' by pupils and colleagues alike. A pedantic, humourless dullard, his lessons lack the faintest spark of inspiration, which in any case would be snuffed out by his obsession with discipline and conformity. But these are what's lacking in his private life: ill-health is pushing his career towards a premature end (with serious repercussions for his hoped-for pension), while his wife is having an affair with a colleague.

There are deliberate but unforced parallels here with the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and the film's title refers to a 19th-century translation of Aeschylus's 'Agamemnon' by the poet Robert Browning. This comes to symbolise the emotional focus of the relationship between Crocker-Harris and his pupil Taplow, the only one of his charges who senses that there might be more to this desiccated husk of a man than his reputation as 'the Himmler of the Lower Fifth' might indicate.

The subtle characterisation defies stereotype: Millie Crocker-Harris is clearly behaving appallingly towards her husband, but it's equally clear that her attraction to his colleague Hunter stems more from intense sexual frustration than any innate wickedness. Since Rattigan, Asquith and indeed Redgrave were closeted homosexuals, it's not hard to guess what might lie at the root of these marital difficulties, though it would have been unthinkable for the film to spell it out. Though Hunter seduces Millie, his subsequent guilt is palpable.

Appropriately for a film about extreme reticence, Asquith's direction is understated, lacking even incidental music that isn't performed onscreen. The major addition to the original stage version is the climactic speech in which Redgrave unbuttons himself, finally giving his pupils a hint of the brilliant scholar he once had been, combined with a warning about letting early promise wither and die.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. A melancholy dissonance (3:32)
2. A delicate matter (3:42)
3. The Browning version (4:41)
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)
Hyde-White, Wilfrid (1903-1991)
Jones, Peter (1920-2000)
Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)