Michael Redgrave gives the performance of his career in Anthony Asquith's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's unforgettable play. Redgrave portrays Andrew Crocker-Harris, an embittered, middle-aged school master who begins to feel his life has been a failure. Diminished by poor health, a crumbling marriage, and the derision of his pupils, the once brilliant scholar is compelled to reexamine his life when a young student offers an unexpected gesture of kindness. A heartbreaking story of remorse and atonement, The Browning Version is a classic of British realism and the winner of Best Actor and Best screenplay honors at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival.
Michael Redgrave etched his subtlest and, in its peculiar way, most beloved screen performance in this classic film version of Terence Rattigan's play. Play and film chronicle the final day of teaching for Andrew Crocker-Harris, a cold-fish public school instructor who has long since outlived his early promise. That his classics students, his colleagues, and even his somewhat younger wife refer to him as "the Crock" is not a mark of affection. Wheezing pedantically, making arcane classical puns without hope of raising a laugh, he's an antiMr. Chips to whom nearly everyone will be happy to say goodbye. Except that on this last day, with his health failing, his wife (Jean Kent) openly carrying on an affair, and his headmaster (the redoubtably smarmy Wilfrid Hyde-White) eager to whisk him off to retirement, Crocker-Harris achieves an order of triumph that the film marks without a whiff of sentimentality.
Rattigan was a meticulous composer of the "well-made play," and Anthony Asquith, who directed 10 films from Rattigan scripts over a quarter-century, was a reliable craftsman who never tried to upstage his material. (Asquith's best film apart from Rattigan was the delicious rendition of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest he and Redgrave did the following year.) It's easy to protest that this is not a formula for exciting "cinema": every scene of The Browning Version could be (and had been) performed on stage. Yet this subtly shaded and finally very moving immersion in "human nature"--to use a phrase "the Crock" scorns at one point--makes a virtue of reticence. By the time it's over, you know it has all the cinema it needs. --Richard T. Jameson