sovay: (I Claudius)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2010-02-26 02:24 am

We are both of us interesting subjects for your microscope

It is not precisely accurate to call Anthony Asquith's The Browning Version (1951) the anti-Mr. Chips,1 but it is certainly a critique of that tradition of school story; I'd line it up with John Edward Williams' Stoner (1965) in that it examines the most unweepy end of the academic stick, the teachers who have not endeared themselves to their students. On the eve of his retirement after eighteen years of teaching Classics to the fifth form at some nameless, archetypal English public school, Michael Redgrave's Andrew Crocker-Harris is pulling even odds between feared and despised, a stooped, rote, greying man from whose face the lines of age and emotion alike seem to have been effaced; he has wire-rimmed glasses that glint thinly across his eyes and a reedy, oddly mannered voice and seems otherwise to have no defining characteristics except the pedantry that directs him to make Latinate jokes his students neither get nor laugh at and the strictness with which he observes their lessons. He could be a piece of clockwork, going through the motions of academia whether his students are in the room or not; he gives the impression that he hardly notices their presence except to criticize. It is one of the film's masterstrokes that while it reveals the students' prevailing views of their teacher (sadistic, emotionally dead, the "Himmler of the Lower Fifth") to be heartbreakingly incomplete, it does not refute the fact that he is not a good teacher, and has not been for years, and perhaps never was, double first and three prizes at Oxford notwithstanding. There is no guarantee of redemption here, and certainly not the kind that recurs like a comforting last dream in generation after generation of shining small faces. Perhaps a single Orestes. κάθαρσις. The Browning Version is, after all, a version of Agamemnon.

It's an astonishing film. I rented it on the sole strength of seeing it constantly mentioned whenever I looked up Michael Redgrave, whom I had otherwise seen only in The Lady Vanishes (1938) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952); I never thought of him as a subtle actor, but the role of Andrew Crocker-Harris takes place almost entirely under the surface and he deserves every word of praise and lacerated flinch of horror the audience can find for him. And Redgrave is a man with charisma to spare: you never once think, he's damping it down. He is simply being someone who never had any to begin with. Look, go watch this movie. I have not touched on a third of what it contains2 and I cannot understand how it took me until this year to become aware of its existence, never mind the fact that there are six lines of never-translated Greek on the blackboard like an epigraph the viewer must figure out for herself and that kind of intelligence is what I want in art. I suspect this is going to be one of the films I watch again and again, to see what else reveals itself each time. I see there's a remake with Albert Finney, who is very talented, but I feel no need to see it at all.

πόθῳ δ᾽ ὑπερποντίας
φάσμα δόξει δόμων ἀνάσσειν·
εὐμόρφων δὲ κολοσσῶν
ἔχθεται χάρις ἀνδρί·
ὀμμάτων δ᾽ ἐν ἀχηνίαις
ἔρρει πᾶσ᾽ Ἀφροδίτα.

1. The characters refer to the earlier film, however, because of course it exists within the contemporary world of Terence Rattigan's script. I love when resonances that would chime for the characters are not excluded merely because the audience is already able to perceive them for themselves.

2. Including a supporting turn by Ronald Howard, Leslie's son. My mother and I saw his name in the credits and while she was theorizing that he might be one of the students, because neither of us knew when he was born, I spotted the lanky, fairish, blade-nosed new professor coming up alongside the headmaster and said, "Or it could be him . . ."

[identity profile] ron-drummond.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 08:22 am (UTC)(link)
Intriguing. I love that quality of astonishment, the great work too fine to have been missed till now, the intensity of the pleasure once discovered. The astonishment and the pleasure at each new iteration only grow more acute over time, and let us pray we never run out of newly-met cultural artefacts generative of both. You are a sure conduit of such; well met.

And I see too that John Gielgud once played the role; but first things first.

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 05:26 pm (UTC)(link)
You are a sure conduit of such; well met.

Thank you. I hope you will like the film when you've met it, too.

And I see too that John Gielgud once played the role; but first things first.

Also Peter Cushing and Ian Holm. I'm not surprised it attracts interesting actors.

[identity profile] nineweaving.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 08:46 am (UTC)(link)
I can only add: I want the book of essays.

Nine

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 05:27 pm (UTC)(link)
I can only add: I want the book of essays.

I think I would need to write something of substance to be publishable, but thank you.

[identity profile] poliphilo.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 12:21 pm (UTC)(link)
I've never seen it- even though I love Redgrave. You've convinced me I must put the omission right- tout de suite.

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 05:20 pm (UTC)(link)
You've convinced me I must put the omission right- tout de suite.

I will be curious to hear what you think. What else would you recommend Redgrave in?

[identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 02:16 pm (UTC)(link)
I have seen the remake, it is brilliant. In checking this on the library database, I discovered that they have a film of Trojan Women, which is now on order for me, so I don't care at all.

[identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 02:53 pm (UTC)(link)
I think I remember seeing information about that Trojan Women--is that the one with Vanessa Redgrave, Katharine Hepburn, and Geneviève Bojold? I remember thinking Wow, that's quite the cast.

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 05:07 pm (UTC)(link)
I have seen the remake, it is brilliant.

Okay; cool. I'm glad. I still think I may hold off on seeing it for a little while this one reverberates.

In checking this on the library database, I discovered that they have a film of Trojan Women, which is now on order for me, so I don't care at all.

Cacoyannis' version? I've wanted to see that for years. Please give a full report!

[identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com 2010-02-27 12:57 am (UTC)(link)
That's the one.

It had never occurred to me to look for it. But searching on Michael + Redgrave threw it up.

[identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 02:54 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, that sounds excellent (and how cool about Leslie Howard's son).

I think we may be giving up Netflix, but I bet I can get this on interlibrary loan through our library network.

and: the Greek

[identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 02:55 pm (UTC)(link)
When you say never translated, you mean in the movie, not IRL, right?

May I ask--can you share what it says?

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 05:05 pm (UTC)(link)
I think we may be giving up Netflix, but I bet I can get this on interlibrary loan through our library network.

It's a Criterion disc; it should be easy to find. Enjoy!

When you say never translated, you mean in the movie, not IRL, right?

Oh, yeah. The six lines are never translated for the audience, but everyone from Robert Browning to Ted Hughes has had a crack at them in real life; they're Agamemnon 414—419:

And in longing for her across the sea
a phantom seems lord of the house.
The grace of well-shaped statues
is hateful to that man:
and in the appetite of his eyes
all love is gone.

[identity profile] asakiyume.livejournal.com 2010-02-26 06:09 pm (UTC)(link)
Those are chilling lines--thanks.

[identity profile] ap-aelfwine.livejournal.com 2010-02-27 12:20 am (UTC)(link)
Thanks for the translation--I was flummoxed as usual by the Greek.

[identity profile] ap-aelfwine.livejournal.com 2010-02-27 12:20 am (UTC)(link)
Interesting review. Thank you for sharing it.

[identity profile] sovay.livejournal.com 2010-02-27 06:12 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for sharing it.

You're welcome. I tend not to mention things that didn't impress me and go on for pages about the things that did.