Film Reviews

A Fine Finney Version

I confess; I used to be a Latin teacher. So there's a soft spot in my heart for any film in which the protagonist attempts the impossible, i.e. teaching classics to high schoolers. Maybe that's why I'm willing to cut The Browning Version some slack.

Go along with it a bit and, if you liked Remains of the Day, you'll probably enjoy this latest adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's play about a crusty teacher and the student whose gift changes everything.

During the '40s, Rattigan was England's stud duck playwright. Everything he did was a smash, and Browning has been onstage pretty much continuously since premiering in 1948. In 1951, there was a much praised -- too much praised -- film version starring Sir Michael Redgrave in which Lynn and Vanessa's dad sounded like he'd just gargled with plum jam. The latest Browning Version, starring Albert Finney, doesn't have a plum jam problem, but it is set firmly in that imaginary England where symphonic music swells at every strategic moment, every landscape is a Constable, every room is lit by golden light and -- even more improbably -- every teenage boy is blessed with a flawless rose-and-cream complexion. Of course, the boys attend a picturesque boarding school.

The serpent in this Eden is Andrew Crocker-Harris (Finney), a bitter, aging classics teacher who was once a brilliant scholar. Now the kids call him "The Crock"; the other teachers tag him "The Hitler of the Lower Fifth." Condescending and punctilious, he enjoys telling his boys, in the voice of a hanging judge, "You have obtained exactly what you deserve. No less, and certainly no more."

At one time, though, Crocker-Harris must have hoped for more, because he married Laura, a lovely, much younger woman (Greta Scacchi, almost unrecognizable as a faculty wife). Now she's busy betraying him -- again. This time her partner is Frank (Matthew Modine), an American science teacher.

In the bell-jar world of boarding school, there's no such thing as a clandestine affair. Everyone knows, and everyone pretends not to. They also pretend that Crocker-Harris has decided to retire at the end of term. In fact, the school is decorously giving him the boot. "What happened to him?" Frank asks his lover. After a bitter pause, Laura answers, "I happened to him."

We're meant to assume that Laura's the ambitious one, a political animal, clever at small talk. But Andrew is stiff and unable to schmooze, so he's been passed over for headmaster time and again. Does this mean that frustration drives Laura to take lovers, and to use them like weapons to stab at him?

Into the fraying mess that is Crocker-Harris' life comes Taplow, a sweetly ingenuous kid who offers the unbending teacher the gift of his admiration in the form of a book, the Browning version of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, not knowing, perhaps, that the story of lost opportunities and trust betrayed mirrors Crocker-Harris' own.

Earlier, as a misguided "end of term treat," The Crock had given his class a dramatic reading from the play's original Greek. In that moment, all the passion and love for learning and literature that called Crocker-Harris to teaching shine through. We see the man he might have become, but didn't. In the end, the student's heartfelt gift is the catalyst that brings about change in The Crock, his wife and her lover.

Director Mike Figgis, whose best-known work includes Internal Affairs and the noirish Stormy Monday, is an odd match for this material. Still, he does a good job with the atmospherics. More important, he refuses to allow any Goodbye Mr. Chips smarm to creep in.

Not that smarm is likely when Albert Finney is on the job. With age, the erstwhile Tom Jones has become one of England's best actors. In The Browning Version he is an off-putting, bitter man who's emotionally imploding. Most stars would give Crocker-Harris some cute little mannerism because they can't bear to be unlikable. Finney doesn't. And the film, and its viewers, benefit.

The Browning Version.
Directed by Mike Figgis. With Albert Finney, Greta Scacchi and Matthew Modine.

Rated R.
97 minutes.

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Joanne Harrison