|Albert Finney in The Browning Version|
The moment you see Albert Finney in the 1994 film of The Browning Version, you know you’re watching an actor in the grip of a great performance. If you care about acting, you scarcely dare to miss anything Finney does, because you never know when he’s going to dazzle you: in the British TV version of the Kingsley Amis ghost story The Green Man, for instance, or in The Playboys, as the alcoholic cop who’s strung up by his love for the independent woman he’s impregnated. He’s even more amazing in The Browning Version – it surpasses anything I’ve seen him do, with the single exception of the 1982 Shoot the Moon. This was the performance of its year, but it was a trick to catch it on the big screen. Paramount – exactly the wrong studio to handle a British “prestige” picture – tried the movie out in Cannes, and when there wasn’t much response, they nearly dumped it. They didn’t bother screening it in New York or L.A. in time to make the long lead times of the monthlies, and when they opened it in the fall, they gave it a small ad campaign and a very limited release. It was befuddling that no one at the studio figured out the audience for the Merchant Ivory pictures would happily troop out to see a film like The Browning Version if they knew about it, and even odder than no one could see Finney was a shoe-in for major award nominations if only his work was promoted. (The Boston Film Critics gave him the Best Actor award despite the fact that the movie opened in the last-resort downtown art house – aborted by Paramount, it was ignored by Sony, the conglomerate that owned almost every theatre in the city at the time.) Ironically, Finney’s own (failed) performance in A Man of No Importance, a lousy movie about a gay bus conductor in fifties Dublin with an Oscar Wilde fixation, got far more notice.
Mike Figgis’s movie is the second film version of what is probably the best known of Terence Rattigan’s plays. The script is built around the valedictory of an aging English schoolmaster named Andrew Crocker-Harris, a classics instructor at a ritzy boys’ school whose wife has come to despise him and whose students resent his old-fashioned doggedness and rigorousness, unleavened as it is by anything they can translate into humaneness. In the course of the drama, Crocker-Harris suffers one indignity upon another. When he finally gets a little pleasure – the one pupil with genuine affection for him gives him, as a retirement offering, Robert Browning’s edition of the Agamemnon – his wife ruins it for him by insisting that the boy was merely being shrewdly manipulative. Rattigan’s play is small-scale and a little tight-lipped, but it’s poignant, and when Anthony Asquith filmed it in 1951 he had Michael Redgrave to march it through to greatness. Redgrave laid a gently sibilant, slightly quavering voice like a skin over Crocker-Harris’s slivered bitterness. As the performance proceeded, the teacher’s masterful control began to flake, and you saw what motivated the sarcasm and the misanthropy and the near-sadistic humiliation he leveled at his boys. Probably no one in movie history besides Laurence Olivier has ever managed anything like the wit and elegant, intricate layering of Redgrave’s line readings, especially here and in Uncle Vanya and Dead of Night. This first Browning Version isn’t the world’s greatest movie (it doesn’t contain a single memorable portrayal outside of Redgrave’s), but it is a great experience.