Two Approaches to ‘The Browning Version’

Title card to the 1951 screen version.

Title card to the 1951 screen version.

. . . κρατοῦντα μαλθακῶς
θεὸς πρόσωθεν εὐμενῶς προσδέρκεται.

(God from afar shines graciously upon a gentle master.)
Aeschylus, “The Agamemnon,” lines 951-952

In the 1951 screen adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s one act play, “The Browning Version,” Michael Redgrave gives what I consider to be perhaps the greatest screen performance by a leading actor. At any rate, I cannot think of a performance that I admire more. (There is one performance by an actress that I think is as great, but I’ll discuss that in another post.) By no means is “The Browning Version” a perfect movie — it’s full of bad performances (Jean Kent as his shrewish wife is especially appalling), and it suffers from a ludicrous final scene that was added to give the story a squishy uplift that undermines the story’s tragic integrity. But Michael Redgrave’s performance as Mr Crocker-Harris, a much despised schoolmaster, is beyond reproach. Here’s a scene in which he gives a private tutorial to his one sympathetic student, named Taplow (Brian Smith).

In 1985, Ian Holm played the role on the BBC. He was supported by a much better cast (including Judi Dench in the Jean Kent role: Dame Judi proves the role does work when handled with sensitivity and intelligence). Holm’s own performance is excellent — and different in nearly every conceivable way from Redgrave’s. (Taplow is very well played by Steven Mackintosh.) Have a look.

I have great admiration for Holm’s performance; in some ways, I think he may be closer to Rattigan’s original conception. The constriction in his throat, for example, strikes me as a good acting choice: Mr Crocker-Harris is being forced to leave his position due to illness; Holm’s habitual clearing of his throat suggests both some sort of chronic illness, as well as chronic psychological discomfort. By contrast, Redgrave gives no indication of the nature of Mr Crocker-Harris’ career-ending illness. But as admirable and tough-minded as Holm’s interpretation is, he doesn’t move me as deeply as Redgrave does. At first, I thought it possible that I was simply more familiar with Redgrave’s performance. But I’ve changed my mind about this.

For one thing, Holm has made the Crock (as his students refer to him) too emotionally shut down. There’s no music or poetry in Holm’s line readings. I think, in fact, this is perhaps more realistic than Redgrave’s intensely musical readings — it certainly makes his Crock less overtly eccentric than Redgrave’s — but eccentricity is precisely what the part calls for. Redgrave presents a personality that is very much shut down, but the voice continues to shudder and tremble with emotion. For example, there’s the point when he says “I’m not denying ‘The Agamemnon’ is a play: it is perhaps the greatest play ever written” — and Taplow says “I wonder how many boys in the class think that.” The abrasion to Redgrave’s gossamer sensitivity is exquisitely painful (especially after the way he dwelt lingeringly upon “the greatest play ever written”; Holm speaks the line as a rote memory lecture note) — you can hear the pain in Redgrave’s voice and see it in his eyes. His is “A countenance more/In sorrow than in anger”; Holm is more angered at Taplow’s insolence than wounded by his observation: he looks frigid and stern; his voice is all gravel and ashes. Redgrave’s reaction strikes me as the better acting choice because it leads more naturally to Mr Crocker-Harris’ revelation about his having written a translation of the play. You can understand why the Crock reveals himself to Taplow — it’s a defense of his beloved Aeschylus as much as it is an unexpected, all-but-involuntary recounting of a long-suppressed memory. But why does Holm reveal himself to the boy? It seems out of character, and the effect, overall, is more brittle and less meaningful. (In the television (and the original) version, the Crock says he finished the play; in the movie version, he didn’t finish it. It’s an interesting difference, since Holm’s character seems more likely to finish anything he started, while Redgrave’s — though stoic and long-suffering — seems more likely to surrender to apathy and call it “facing facts.”) When Taplow says “that must have been hard work.” Holm bristles defensively, while Redgrave luxuriates in the memory of a time when he was fully engaged intellectually, and emotionally wholly alive. (I much prefer Taplow’s line in the picture: “That must have been jolly hard work.”  I also much prefer Redgrave’s pronunciation of “construing” with the emphasis on the first syllable. For all I know, Holm’s pronunciation is perfectly correct, but what of that? I like construing because it sets it apart from the more generic meaning of the word.)

In fairness to Holm, I should mention that the director, Michael A. Simpson, has done him no favors by shooting the scene entirely in close-ups, which interferes with the possibility of establishing any chemistry between him and Taplow. In Anthony Asquith’s movie, the scene is played largely with both characters in the shot, which makes the Crock’s reactions to Taplow’s remarks more immediate and pathetic. Also, it’s well to remember that Michael Redgrave was a very large man — six foot five — so having him in the same shot with Brian Smith allows him to loom in a way that the diminutive Ian Holm cannot.

In this next scene, the Crock explains at some length how he developed into the eccentric person he has become. The picture must have attracted very little attention in the United States when it was released, otherwise I cannot understand how a performance like this could fail to be nominated for an Academy Award. Redgrave did, however, win the prize that year at the Cannes Film Festival.

Everything Redgrave does in this scene is wonderful, but what I find most moving of all is the little pat he gives to the desk when he says, “But a single success can atone, and more than atone, for all the failures in the world.” That little pat tells you that many years ago, his most brilliant student sat at that desk and the poor old fellow has never forgotten what success felt like in that one long-ago year. In Method Acting circles, this sort of thing is called a “psychological gesture” — a physical manifestation of a highly charged emotional recall or state of mind. Done properly, the psychological gesture is a great acting tool, but it’s all too easy to overdo. Redgrave does it to perfection. Method actors are wont to clutter up their performances with what may be termed “faux psychological gestures”: tics and spasms that steal focus but convey nothing. Just look at James Dean or Steve McQueen as they scratch and twitch and grimace and execute little meaningless shivers to catch your attention and you’ll see what I mean. (There’s a famous example in “The Magnificent Seven,” in which McQueen rides shotgun through town on a stagecoach with Yul Brynner. The sequence is only a few seconds long, but McQueen did so many little things to pull focus, that Brynner wanted to kill the son of a bitch.)

When Holm speaks of his wish to “communicate, however imperfectly, some of my joy in the great literature of the past,” the effect is more ironic than poignant: he’s so stern, so robotic that the joy he speaks of is hard, even impossible, to imagine. When Redgrave speaks the lines, you can plainly hear from the way he caresses the words that his feelings for literature run very deep. There is nothing at all dusty about his love; his tragedy is his not possessing “the knack of making [himself] liked.” As I see it, it is not the Crock’s implacability or coldness that made him disliked when he was first starting out as a schoolmaster, but rather the intensity of his passion for his subject. It is this passion that he slowly developed into parody for the boys’ amusement, “because you can teach far more things by laughter than by earnestness.” His observations about “my little mannerisms and tricks of speech” make far more sense if he actually has mannerisms and tricks of speech, which Holm does not — at least, not in abundance. Moreover, an important plot device turns upon Mrs Crocker-Harris’ catching Taplow in the middle of doing an impersonation of her husband. Redgrave’s performance provides a vast inventory of vocal tics for Taplow to imitate; Ian Holm gives the poor boy little to imitate, other than an habitual clearing of the throat and a permanent scowl.

It also appears that Holm takes too literally the Crock’s claim that “I have so little sense of humour.” Mr Crocker-Harris never stops making little jokes, but they’re either so abstruse that nobody gets them or they’re so caustic that nobody finds them amusing. He knows nobody will laugh, but he makes the jokes anyway, then follows them with an icy little smirk. His wit isolates him. When Taplow takes pity on him in class, and laughs at one of his little epigrams (which Taplow later describes as a “dud joke”), the Crock calls him to the front of the class and demands that the boy explain it to the rest of the class. Eventually Taplow confesses that he didn’t hear it properly. “Then why did you laugh at what you did not hear?” “Politeness.” The Crock mumurs, “Toujours la politesse” and sends him back to his seat, with a scornful, “If you should really wish to show me politeness, you will do so by composing verses less appalling than the ones I corrected this morning.” In the picture, this scene is our introduction to the Crock (in the play, we only get the story in Taplow’s recounting of it), and it presents an indelible picture of a harsh master who makes jokes with the specific intention of bewildering his students and then humiliates anyone who has the effrontery to laugh politely. Crocker-Harris has a highly developed sense of humor; he just isn’t prepared to have his punchlines induce laughter.

I’m afraid I’ve come down too hard on Ian Holm in my effort to make clear what I love so much about Redgrave’s gorgeous performance. Holm’s performance is entirely valid and emotionally satisfying. Taken as a whole, the 1985 BBC production is better than the 1951 picture. But as fine as Holm is, the performance isn’t monumental in the way that Redgrave’s is. Happily, you can see both the 1951 and the 1985 versions in their entirety on YouTube, though of course YouTube is never the best way to see anything. You can also see the surprisingly ill-conceived 1994 Mike Figgis picture starring Albert Finney and Greta Scacchi on YouTube (which actually may be the one time when YouTube is the best way to see a picture: in the movie theatre, I found Figgis’ remake intolerable). I say “surprisingly ill-conceived,” because on the Criterion Collection’s excellent DVD transfer of the 1951 picture, Figgis talks brilliantly about the play and the style of acting that was still in vogue when it was written. Figgis is so perceptive and lucid about the material and the out-of-date acting style that I was bewildered that he could have made so many mistakes when he got the chance to do his own version of a play he understands so completely. Finney is a superb actor, but it’s hard to imagine an actor less suited temperamentally to the character of poor old Mr Crocker-Harris. I found myself peeking through my fingers at the picture.

5 thoughts on “Two Approaches to ‘The Browning Version’

  1. Gregorio

    It came out nicely indeed.
    I love the nice balance you found between the comparisons and the detailed description of his performance.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: The Greatest British Motion Picture | The Claude Rains Fan Club

  3. Shui Chen

    I am amused by “YouTube is the best version” with regard to the 1994 version. It’s a real joy to watch Redgrave’ s performance in the two scenes. Not to mention that the picture quality is satisfactory.

    Reply

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