Mike Figgis is a director known for flash and dash (Stormy Monday, Leaving Las Vegas), as befits a career that began with pop music videos; so the restraint of his version of The Browning Version surprises. Terence Rattigan’s famous 1948 play, as well as the famous 1951 Anthony Asquith film that Rattigan himself wrote, have apparently sobered up the stylish Englishman. I wish I could say, therefore, that the film is a good one. It isn’t.
The protagonist is Andrew Crocker-Harris, a classicist at a British preparatory school. Andrew is a teacher of the old school; harsh and acerbic, he is detested by nearly all his students, who ridicule him behind his back, mimicking his cruel pedantries and calling him (with no justification that we ever see) “the Hitler of the low sixth-form.” The opinion of him held by his fellow teachers has followed suit. Nevertheless, trapped in the embittered melancholy of a deep sense that life has passed him by, Andrew has been largely oblivious as to how others view him, including his wife, Laura, who is having an affair with one of his colleagues, and who avails herself of every opportunity to cut him down, in public and private. Only now, Andrew must confront all his failures. His wife plans to leave him, and after decades of teaching he is about to leave his post, possibly without a pension, forced out by the school in pursuit of the current aim to have all teachers conform to a single liberal behavioral mold. Andrew has two high moments left: a student’s personally inscribed gift to him of Robert Browning’s translation of Andrew’s favorite play, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon; a farewell speech he is to give, in which he acknowledges all his shortcomings.
One of the things that scarcely helps is the updating of the action to the 1990s, by which time, in fact, even elitist British schooling had long since given up the teaching of the classics. (The scenarist is Ronald Harwood, who won a 2002 Oscar for writing Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.) In the film, Andrew is not only leaving but is being replaced by another classics instructor, one who is indistinguishable in manner from the chemistry teacher with whom Laura is adulterously bedding. But the film is dead-on in another regard: the science teacher is American; for it’s absolutely an American thing to disdain providing a depth of classroom education, and a variety of different teaching approaches, in favor of skimming matters with a winning smile and cozily befriending students in pursuit of “being liked.” (The Americanization of the wife’s lover is the invention of this version.) As a result, hardly anyone is learning anything in American schools anymore, where, by and large, students and parents dictate all the rules, including, even, what’s to be taught. The theme of pernicious American influence (a reversal of the past direction of influence from England to America) is certainly a good one, but like everything else in Figgis’s vague film it gets lost amid a plethora of plot details.
This is a terrible current failure of commercial films: rather than devoting each shot to the development of a theme, or to the development of interlocking themes, they get bogged down in some plot; and, indeed, instead of proceeding by shots, as a genuine film does, they proceed by scenes. It’s all the harder to do otherwise, in the latter regard, when the material began as a stage play. Ironically, attempts to “open up” a play usually backfire, for all the strenuous effort this involves merely underscores a work’s theatrical origins. Asquith’s Browning Version may be in some sense more mechanical than Figgis’s, but it’s also more coherent, convincing and engrossing. There really is no compelling reason for us to have another Browning Version, except, of course, that actors love to play the central part.
Figgis is great with actors: Melanie Griffith, Sean Bean and Sting in Stormy Monday (1988), Richard Gere in Internal Affairs (1990), Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas (1995). Albert Finney’s performance here is another jewel in that crown. (Finney was named best actor by the Boston Society of Film Critics.) This is perhaps the most precise and penetrating acting that Finney has done, although his best performance surely remains the devastating one he gave as Geoffrey Firmin, from Malcolm Lowry, in John Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984)—a part, incidentally, that shares a few points in common with Crocker-Harris. Michael Redgrave, of course, is marvelous in the Asquith version. Still, Finney’s tour-de-force is the one reason to consult the Figgis version—this director’s one foray into the bland territory of Masterpiece Theatre.