The Browning Version Anthony Asquith

The Browning Version is a very good movie pretending to be a middling one. Its story of heartless schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave), who's bounced from the roster for ill-health and facing an uncertain future with a wife who despises him, is not without stuffier moments. To be sure, playwright-turned-screenwriter Terrence Rattigan draws arrows to the important moments and falls back on obvious symmetries that obstruct or deform the painful reality of our repressed hero's plight. But just when you think the script has sunk into the torpor of the so-called "well-written play," it roars to life with a nasty exchange or a pithy comment that reverberates throughout the tense restraint of Anthony Asquith's mise en scene. And there at the centre is Redgrave, committing totally to his role as the pointlessly stoic teacher who is at once unconcerned about his students' respect for him and deeply hurt when he's dubbed "the Himmler of the lower fifth." Though he sometimes goes overboard in rendering the character's uptight mannerisms, this pays off handsomely when his wall is penetrated by an understanding student and he finally crumbles. Everything the movie gets wrong somehow doesn't count in the face of all it gets right, and in rendering a hostile marriage in all of its bitterness and futility, it prefigures Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by a good decade-and-a-half. There's a gorgeous transfer courtesy of the folks at Criterion, as well as a slightly obvious commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, a half-informative/half-gushy interview with Mike Figgis (who directed the 1994 remake), a brief but fascinating 1958 television interview with Redgrave, and some excellent liner notes by Geoffrey MacNab. (Criterion/Morningstar)