Dir. Anthony Asquith. Starring Michael Redgrave, Nigel Patrick, Brian Smith
There are so few good movies about teachers in the world because actual teachers’ professional lives don’t lend themselves well to typical movie drama. Thus movies about teachers frequently thrust them into situations where they take on “unteachable” students and, with some post-hard knocks empathy, teach them something about dignity and self-worth: Stand and Deliver, To Sir, with Love, Les choristes, Freedom Writers, The Blackboard Jungle, etc. Even Dead Poets Society, with students who are “unteachable” in the sense that as princes of New England there’s very little they need from their ritzy private school because of their ritzy private lives, kind of fits this mold. (While we’re here and being iconoclastic, let’s compliment Stand and Deliver because Jaime Escalante verifiably teaches calculus as opposed to a squishy series of lessons along the lines of “You matter as a human being.”) I have only seen two movies which really get what teaching feels like either emotionally or pedagogically: The Class and The Emperor’s Club, though one is set in a very real contemporary Parisian public school and the other is set in a very sunny ’60s American boarding school. The Browning Version is much less about teaching than those two movies are, for there are only limited scenes of anyone, even Crocker-Harris (Redgrave), in the midst of instruction. But it understands something about a teacher’s psyche and especially that of a veteran teacher who is forced to put his career into some sort of context while his life falls out around him.
Andrew Crocker-Harris, on the verge of leaving the school he has taught at for some years due largely to his failing health, is sure that he has failed. The evidence is all around him. His students are apathetic about him at best; only one, a boy named Taplow (Smith), sympathizes with his difficult master. His coworkers and his principal have little interest in him, and at this point are doing little more than offering platitudes about moving on. His wife, Millie (Jean Kent), is contemptuous of her husband and carrying on an affair with one of his colleagues, science teacher Frank Hunter (Patrick). More than any other relationship of Crocker-Harris’ in the film, his connection to his wife is the one which changes the most in front of our eyes. Millie, who comes from a wealthier family than Andrew, married him when she thought he might have the ambition to rise to a headmaster’s position and more; much of her bitterness about their marriage is that they are stuck where they are. One sees the seeds of George and Martha’s relationship in this loam, and while no one ever devolves to that level of histrionics in The Browning Version, some of Millie’s harsher instant reactions to Andrew occur so rapidly in her face that it takes one aback.
Even outside his personal and active professional life, Crocker-Harris feels like a failure. In a line of dialogue which is so rapid that it is nearly missed, given that it comes right before Crocker-Harris discovers he won’t be getting a pension, he and the headmaster (Wilfrid Hyde-White) chat about Crocker-Harris’ record at university. As a young man, Crocker-Harris won prizes for his classical scholarship, and seemed fated for a brilliant career in that field. (There are an awful lot of movies and television programs about teachers which subtly enforce what we all know about education types: teachers all think, for one reason or another, they could have a job in the field they teach. More than that, many of them want that job.) In short, on the day he teaches his last class at this school, Crocker-Harris has fallen as low as it is possible for a teacher in his position to fall. His present professional life is essentially over, as he will transfer to a much less prestigious school. His personal life is rotting away, as his wife is as open about her affair with Hunter as she is contemptuous of the penury that his low salary will place them in. His professional dreams of becoming a renowned classical scholar as somehow the most laughable of the bunch. The only reason that Crocker-Harris hasn’t thrown himself off the nearest roof is because he has felt some variation on this malaise for years.
Crocker-Harris teaches fifteen-year-olds, exacting exact translations from them with a joyless, mathematical air. In one scene, he tutors Taplow individually as the boy tries, with some success, to read from Aeschylus. Taplow says “can.” With eyes closed, Crocker-Harris says “canst.” Taplow says “surprised,” Crocker-Harris says “marvel.” It’s not difficult to figure out why “The Crock” is unpopular with his students. No child can keep up with his standard, but more importantly he has taken the life out of the story of Agamemnon. Taplow is bright enough to realize it, too: it would make a good play, he says, before correcting himself and saying “modern.” But his point is well made. It would be a good play, but Crocker-Harris has ensured that it will never be anything more than a long and arduous exercise in translation in the minds of his students. In that moment, alone with an amiable child, Crocker-Harris agrees, suggesting that Agamemnon may even be the greatest play of all time. Then he realizes what he’s done to it. “I wonder how many boys in the class think that,” he murmurs. He himself was so moved by the play as a young man that he attempted to translate it into rhyming couplets. Surely he has not inspired a single pupil to that extent, and he knows it, too. Finding out that he is known colloquially as the “Himmler of the lower fifth”—and that he is told as much by his replacement, Gilbert (Ronald Howard), a younger man with virtually no experience at the school—shakes him to his core. He repeats it over and over again. It’s one thing to know that you are no student’s favorite teacher and another thing entirely to be their Himmler.
The unity of Anthony Asquith’s austere style and Michael Redgrave’s repressed schoolmaster is what makes The Browning Version special. (Terence Rattigan’s adaptation of his own play is quite good as well, although there’s a speech at the end which, as far as I can tell, was tacked on for the sake of the movie.) Asquith spends an awful lot of time shooting two people having a conversation, and often as not Redgrave is the one in profile. Asquith can tell that the reactions of other characters to Crocker-Harris (particularly Hunter, but Millie and Taplow as well) means more than seeing the whole of the protagonist’s face. Crocker-Harris has learned that it’s not worth it to fight his situation, but the others around him have never taken that lesson to heart. Hunter and Taplow are both kindly inclined people anyhow, even without seeing the sadsack in front of them, and for that reason we get a lot more emotional understanding of Crocker-Harris from their bending faces than we get from Redgrave’s static one. (Although any discussion of casting or performance in this film has to begin and end with Michael Redgrave, Nigel Patrick is really good as a younger and far more popular teacher. The other faculty members don’t think much of the liveliness of his classroom, from his propensity for experiments that may not work the first time to his inability to keep the noise down in the halls. What Hunter understands is that teenage boys are teenage boys, and that engagement is precious.) For his part, Redgrave keeps a slight frown, a sort of glazed look behind his eyes, and a thin, thoroughly grammatical voice for nearly the entire film. His visage and his misery are the two constants of The Browning Version, and of course this is why the movie’s great scene works like gangbusters.
It is vitally important to know that Taplow is on the cusp of being held back from the upper fifth, and that he is working his butt off in the last hours of the term in order to ensure that he makes it through. It is vitally important to know that students learn to become manipulative when they realize they can gain any sort of advantage from a teacher (especially when they realize that their teachers are probably masterful manipulators themselves). It is vitally important to know that a student can be disrespectful at one moment and deferential in another, and that the latter probably means more than the former given the child’s immaturity. It is vitally important to know that teachers, even distant ones like Crocker-Harris, expend a great deal of themselves, and that any recognition of that by students is meaningful. What Rattigan throws into this cocktail is a well-established fact: Andrew Crocker-Harris could not possibly sink any lower. When Taplow gives Crocker-Harris “the Browning version” of Agamemnon, a flowery translation by the great poet, it stands to reason that he is trying to worm his way into a better position. When it turns out that Taplow has written an inscription in Greek that translates as “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master,” there can be no question of his kind feelings towards the Crock. Crocker-Harris has Taplow run an errand for him so that he can weep alone, and watching Redgrave’s snot and shaking is utterly sublime. This is a moment which is amplified by Crocker-Harris’ job; hearing that one boy sees a person in him, a person who is decidedly not Himmler, is enough to make him “dissolve into molecules,” to borrow from another movie I love.
Where Crocker-Harris’ profession really comes into play, though, is when Millie finds out about the gift. She offhandedly tells Crocker-Harris that she saw Taplow mimicking him earlier (which is true) and says that the gift is a cheap way to earn points toward promotion. Jean Kent makes that moment invidiously cruel, and to me it’s even more powerful than Michael Redgrave’s tears. For one thing, it’s clear to us who saw both moments (and another in front of his fellow kids) that Taplow was doing nothing of the sort. For another, and Hunter is there to see how wicked Millie’s cuts are, there was something sacrosanct about the moment which Crocker-Harris may well have wept at. Teachers, no matter how confident or experienced, know that there is a distinct chance that they are failing to get through to each of their kids. Knowing at his lowest point he can still affect one must mean the world to Crocker-Harris, and Millie, knowing this weakness, seizes on it. The push and pull of this scene marks the most powerful moments of the movie, and gets to the heart of what teachers think about when the weather warms.