Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neglected Gem #23: The Browning Version (1994)

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.

Michael Redgrave and Jean Kent in the 1951 film
Albert Finney came into the movies with the terrific classical training we expect of English actors.  But he’s not a Michael Redgrave – he didn’t become the staggering actor he is until he’d mixed some American Method in with his British technique and begun pulling something dark and harrowing out of himself.  There’s a frightening private quality about his best work, a psychic messiness that stands in opposition to what the British system of acting espouses, and I assume it’s that quality in American actors that attracted Finney and other Brits who came to Hollywood in the sixties.  It’s not that you forget you’re watching an American actor when you see Finney’s Crocker-Harris; the material wouldn’t make any sense if he were anything but English.  It’s that Finney takes you straight into the emotional decay of this man – the devastation beneath the old-style declamatory style in which he reads Aeschylus, his hero, in the classroom, and the tight, finicky schoolroom control (which we see is his only way of channeling his feeling for the material he’s teaching), and the eccentricities, which at this point are almost self-mocking.  When Anthony Hopkins plays a repressed WASP, he modulates the emotion behind the vigilant reserve (and nobody does it better).  When Finney tackles the same kind of role, he lays waste to it; there’s so much wayward passion in Crocker-Harris that you’re surprised he can still stand.  The only comparable performance to this one may be Maggie Smith’s in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987).  These characters have slipped so far beyond the power of good breeding to lasso their naked anguish that British reserve seems less like sanctuary than like a pathetic joke.  Crocker-Harris’s despair leaks out of his sharp but mournful eyes, slides along the downturned set of his mouth, and gathers in the sad folds of his jowls.

The screenwriter is Ronald Harwood, who wrote The Dresser, which Finney starred in, wonderfully, on screen, and he does a creditable job with the adaptation.  He’s tried to update the play by suggesting that Crocker-Harris’s classicism is out of date in the multicultural nineties; his replacement, Tom Gilbert (Julian Sands), will be teaching modern languages instead.  But the material is defiantly forties; if we’re forced to think about it at all, we might wonder how a man like Crocker-Harris could have survived the changes in education that began in the sixties.  But the limp contemporizing of Rattigan’s play simply falls away while we’re watching the film; we barely notice it – as we barely notice the bland, derivative subplot involving the bully outwitted by Taplow (Ben Silverstone, in a gentle, touching performance), the sensitive pupil who appreciates Crocker-Harris and hands him “The Browning Version” to acknowledge his contribution.  What we do notice, in addition to Finney, is the beautiful direction by Figgis and the impeccable acting in the supporting roles.

Some of these performances come as quite a surprise.  You expect the intelligence Michael Gambon brings to the part of the headmaster; less predictable are the gracefulness and modesty in Matthew Modine’s reading of Frank Hunter, the science teacher who has cuckolded Crocker-Harris.  They hark back to his early film performances and are a relief after all the hothead roles he’s been miscast in, one after another, in between, in American pictures.  And Greta Scacchi, usually a rather chilly and opaque beauty, comes through with an illuminating portrayal of Laura Crocker-Harris.  In the Asquith film, Jean Kent made the wife such an unreasonable bitch that Rattigan’s connection between this character and Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon – in the older, less generous reading of the character that the best modern Aeschylus scholarship quarrels with – was embarrassingly clear.  Scacchi and Figgis humanize Laura by allowing her to be complex.  The scene where she poisons Taplow’s gift for her husband is agonizing, but not just because of the depth of Crocker-Harris’s disillusionment; Scacchi makes us see that Laura is so angry at her husband that she can’t help behaving as she does.  This is like a scene out of Shoot the Moon In my book, that’s praise indeed.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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