The Browning Version (1951)
Director: Anthony Asquith
One of the things I’ve noticed about black and white movies is that the very limitation requires the actors and the director to do some important things to seize the audience’s attention. Namely, they must focus on the most expressive things we know of, the most beautiful, the homeliest, the gentlest, the cruelest, the most innocent, the most deeply plunged into guilt: the human face, and the human hands. No cheap effects are possible.
When you combine that requirement with a script that makes every word count, and you have actors who know what they are about, especially in the 1950’s, when excellent playwrights also wrote for the big screen and brought with them their spare and intensely concentrated sense of human drama, you can get real greatness, in stories that can never be dated, because they are not about this or that political condition or this or that new social movement, but about man himself, his glory and his shame.
That’s what we have in The Browning Version (1951). Don’t bother with the remake in the 1990’s. Terence Rattigan wrote the story as a play for the stage, and then he punched up his script for the cinema, with the excellent Anthony Asquith directing. Here’s the story. A teacher at a boys’ school in England, one Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave), is nearing the end of his career. He is in poor health. He has married badly, and his wife, who has long been bored and irritated with him, is having an affair with another of the teachers. The headmaster (Wilfrid Hyde-White) is an unctuous and malevolent man who wants Crocker-Harris out of the way. The boys he tries to teach Greek to are dispirited and uninterested in what he does. But there is one boy, Taplow, who does not simply despise him. Under Mr. Crocker-Harris’ direction, he has been taking extra lessons in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, to help boost his grade in the class. And something slight, some little spark of a real human interchange, comes to life between the lonely, off-putting, hopeless old fellow, and the boy who does seem to understand a little bit about both the play they are reading and his mostly ineffectual teacher. The film is called The Browning Version for the gift that Taplow finds in a used book shop, a copy of a translation of the Agamemnon, made by the poet Robert Browning. For Crocker-Harris himself had tried his hand at translating it, long ago – but like everything else in his life, it has come to nothing.
It’s a movie about the bare possibility that a dead soul may come to life again. The drama is riveting and relentless. I will not give out any spoilers. Hear the words, and watch the faces.
Below is a clip from the 1951 version. You may watch the entire film for free at https://archive.org/details/15062tbv. (The site has disabled clickable links, so you will need to cut and paste the address into your browser.)
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