By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Terence Rattigan is a pimp. A 1950s play-writing, more-skewering, human nature-mastering pimp. I first recognized his genius when watching 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea, adapted from on of his works, and now I can say The Browning Version utterly cements his pimpitude.
Don’t you forget!
The Browning Version follows boy’s school classics professor Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) on his final day on the job. “Crock” has a hardass reputation, but one student feels sorry for the man underneath that hard exterior. The film also follows his harpy wife (Jean Kent) as she tries to convince her lover (Nigel Patrick) to follow the couple to their next post.
The genius of the film, and Rattigan’s writing, is in how deftly he reveals his characters to the audience, and how he managed our expectations towards them as we learn more and more.
This wouldn’t be possible without strong performances, and this cast delivers on all levels. Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa and Lynn) first comes off as an insufferable hardass, but so clever is the performance and screenplay that by the end he’s a tragic figure- a man who knows he’s inadequate with people- his wife, his students, but who doesn’t know how to be likable. If you’ve ever had an emotionally closed off parent or authority figure, Redgrave’s performance will melt you.
Yeah, warm hugs aren’t for either of you guys
Jean Kent plays his philandering, harridan wife who perhaps is even more successful in making herself supremely unlikable. Hers is a vicious, conniving, desperate performance, but one we begin to understand as details of their unhappy marriage begin to come to light. We also got not one, but two audience surrogates in Frank Hunter and Taplow, who both have their own motivations and moral quandaries vis a vis the central duo and who both do great jobs acting as well.
Director Anthony Asquith doesn’t add much visually, but he doesn’t need to. He’s the Trent Dilfer of this Superbowl winner- a manager of world-class talent who does exactly what he needs to do and nothing more.
What? You don’t communicate in 10 year old football metaphors?
What he does particularly well is manage the pace of the film (hey, just like Dilfer!), as Rattigan’s Russian nesting doll of a script reveals more and more complexity, up until a highly emotional farewell speech. At the end, all you can do is stand and clap.
I went into this film blind, and found it very slow until everything began to fall into place and I realized who the main characters were and why the film had spent so much time establishing background information. Have a beer at the beginning and stick with it- you won’t be disappointed.
Terence Rattigan takes a universal story- as Crocker-Harris says himself, the story of “an unsatisfied wife and a henpecked husband” and creates a work of intricate layering and incredible depth. Writing and acting showcases don’t come much better than this.
Take a Drink: tsk, tsk, tsk
Take a Drink: for pointed looks
Take a Drink: anytime someone mentions “The Crock” or imitates him
Take a Drink: for classic reference-based foreshadowing (know your Agamemnon!)
Take a Drink: whenever your opinion of a person changes
Do a Shot: for British baseball. Whatsitcalled? Grasshopper? Beatle? Praying Mantis?