Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Browning Version: The Beauty of an Anti-Climax

After I drooled all over The Deep Blue Sea to the president and chief curator of the Jonathan Alexandratos Movies You've Never Heard of Collection, he recommended another film adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, The Browning Version. Rattigan also wrote the screenplay to this 1951 film starring Michael Redgrave. You'll be happy to hear that Rattigan has gone two-for-two in the stories that will rip your heart out department.

The Browning Version takes place over the last few days of Professor Andrew Crocker-Harris's tenure at a boys boarding school in England. The Crock, as the students none-too-fondly refer to him, is a classics professor whose buttoned-up persona and unwavering devotion to rules and discipline has earned him the moniker "The Himmler of the lower fifth." Ill health (heart problems--uh-oh) is forcing an early retirement, but the film also suggests that the encroaching wave of young and vibrant teachers with wildly different pedagogical styles might also be forcing Crocker-Harris out. Two representatives of that breed will deeply hurt, and also learn to deeply respect, the Crock before the film is through.

The Browning Version is about a man who teaches dead languages, and feels dead himself. Who translates ancient texts, but cannot translate his own emotional interiority to his students, his colleagues, or, to their mutual disappointment and bitterness, his wife. Though he appears unflappable, the film chronicles Crocker-Harris in the midst of a profound ontological crisis. He feels that he has failed as a man, and even more devastatingly, that he has failed as a teacher, which to him is a profession that encapsulates and expresses what is best about humanity.

However, there are a few characters who, by force of sheer will, penetrate Crocker-Harris's facade and come to appreciate, and even love, the wounded and disappointed man underneath. One student, Taplow, gives his professor the titular volume, Robert Browning's translation of Agamemnon, after Crocker-Harris shares that he began and abandoned a similar project himself as a young and more hopeful man. The conclusion of the film, which Crocker-Harris himself metafictionally refers to as an anti-climax, finds him articulating a Joycean epiphany of his own failures that, ironically and poignantly, suggests that maybe his best work is still unfinished.

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