We all hated our grade school teachers -- at least one of them. Here's a movie that shows the flipside of that anger, showcasing Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave in the role of a lifetime) on his last, pathetic day as a teacher at a sleepy school for privileged boys.
Crocker-Harris teaches the terribly unpopular dead languages course to younger children who, almost unilaterally, don't appreciate the subject matter. Not only is Crocker-Harris moving for "health reasons," his cruel wife (Jean Kent) is having an affair with a younger professor (Nigel Patrick). And the kids hate him, calling him "Himmler" behind his back.
And yet we feel deeply affectionate for Crocker-Harris, and that's thanks to Redgrave's devastating performance, positively spot on for the difficult role he's placed in as the whipping-boy for not just the kids, but his wife, and the administration of the school. His peers seem to respect him well enough, but it's the kind of reverence that comes with age, not authority.
Directed by Anthony Asquith, The Browning Version is a study of a man who's long since come to terms with his mediocrity and who is almost too willingly slipping into the shadows. It's made all the more powerful by some stellar photography, which paints the school in deep shadows, and the black and white suits and robes that all the characters wear add further to the atmosphere of a near-afterlife. For Crocker-Harris, that's an apt enough description: The title refers to a version of The Agamemnon, translated by Robert Browning, which Crocker-Harris receives as a lone token gift by the one student who might appreciate him. When his wife tells him that it's simply an attempt to buy off a good grade from "The Croc," Redgrave never lets his disappointment show, but we know that the man has quite literally been destroyed.
I won't spoil the ending except to say that it's unexpected but far from corny, and myriad films from Dead Poets Society to Scent of a Woman owe The Browning Version a debt of gratitude for it. Check it out on the new Criterion Collection release, which features commentary from historian Bruce Eder, an old interview with Redgrave, and an interview with Mike Figgis, who directed the 1994 remake of the film with Albert Finney.