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 . . ."