Classic Movie Reviews
Directed by Anthony Asquith
Starring Michael Redgrave
At a London prep-school, reviled teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) prepares for semi-retirement. Suffering ill health, a failed marriage, and the derision of his peers, Crocker-Harris (nicknamed ‘The Crock’) has given up on life. But that afternoon, a student gives Crocker Harris an unexpected gift, which prompts him to reevaluate his past, and prepare for his future.
Someone once said that you learn more from your failures than you do from success. Almost all movies about teachers are about successes. Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir With Love, even Sister Act 2 all focus on charming professors who inspire a love of learning into their surly charges. The Browning Version is an anti-Dead Poet’s Society. And while many aspire to the wacky charisma that is Robin Williams, Michael Redgrave’s soft and subtle performance of a man who failed is infinitely more touching.
The story begins with the last day of school, and the announcement that Professor Andrew Crocker-Harris is leaving to take up a new position. In his class, Crocker-Harris is dull, bitter, and unfeeling, especially compared to the lively science teacher Mr. Hunter (Nigel Patrick). At Crocker-Harris’ home we learn that Hunter, in fact, has been having an affair with Crocker-Harris’ wife, Millie. (Jean Kent) While the faculty wives pity Millie for marrying Crocker-Harris, Millie is in fact a cruel, bitter woman who despises her husband. She is a passionate soul, given to jealousy and melodrama. Her performance would be over the top if not balanced by the English reserve of Redgrave’s character. Crocker-Harris seems to barely notice her cold treatment of him. When Hunter returns a cigarette case she gave him, (thus signaling the affair is over), and Millie drops the case and begins weeping heavily. When Crocker-Harris walks by, he simply picks up the case and puts it on the desk, right next to his sobbing wife.
But regardless of these actions, Andrew Crocker-Harris is not heartless. At one point, he returns to his classroom to retrieve his papers, and meets his replacement, Gilbert (Ronald Howard). Gilbert says, quite lightly, that Crocker-Harris is referred to as the “Himmler of the lower fifth.’ Crocker-Harris, in his slow, bewildered, eccentric way of talking, wonders at when the students started to hate him. He knew that they never could like him, but he enjoyed being laughed at as a character. That sometimes he would exaggerate his own idiosyncrasies so the students could mock him more easily. He has such a deep need for love and affection that he wants to be made fun of, because even people laughing at him is something.
Crocker-Harris is so matter-of-fact about the way that he’s so universally hated you would think nothing more could effect him. He endures a thousand little slights that day, just one more day in the thousand that went before. But that afternoon, one of his students comes to say goodbye, and gives Crocker-Harris a gift, It is a translation of a Greek play he was teaching, a version written by Robert Browning. The old, tired man is overcome. If you aren’t weeping like a baby during this scene, you don’t have a soul.
In most teacher movies, the teachers are golden and reckless. They have the stage presence of a Vegas headliner and the down-to-earth insight of a big brother. They are easily respected and loved. They are superhuman. Andrew Crocker-Harris, on the other hand, is accused of being less than human. He’s a man who was lost to the daily grind. By the end, Crocker-Harris finally begins to revive, looking forward to the future. But he is always a real person. He is always capable of the same frailties and weaknesses that we all are. He wants to be loved and respected, and actually finds it hard. The Browning Version is a film about compassion, humanity, and hope. And unlike all those other teacher movies, real people can actually relate to it.