In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. As the current school year comes to a close, we examine the power and pathos of a lesser-known story about student-teacher relationships: Anthony Asquith’s excellent adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version.
When it comes to stories about the pedagogical classes, there is, of course, Goodbye, Mr. Chips: a beloved educator has a successful and fulfilling career despite setbacks and personal tragedies and ends his life contented with his achievements. On the other end of the scale is The Browning Version, which takes the Chips paradigm and inverts it to extract a melancholy rather than sentimental strain of emotionality. Browning’s educator, Andrew Crocker-Harris, makes no effort to endear himself to his students. He is committed tooth and nail to giving them a sound and instructive education in the classics without coddling their sensibilities, and for that he is scorned and mocked behind his back (he’s routinely called “the Himmler of the lower fifths”). His rigidly unemotional nature, meanwhile, has ruined his marriage, and his younger wife finds solace in pursuing an affair with one of his fellow colleagues. On top of that, he is being forced out of his position on the grounds of ill health to take on a less-enviable position elsewhere. There is no illustrious farewell or copious tears of departure. No one is sorry to see Crocker-Harris go, though one of his more diligent pupils takes it upon himself to purchase a parting gift for this serious scholar.
The heart of this tale lies in this gift, for it’s the first sign that Crocker-Harris receives of something akin to affection. It’s the first sign he receives that shows he matters to someone. Long aware of his unpopularity and the inadequacy of his character to be a charismatic leader or passionate husband, the man has resigned himself to being rejected by all who cross paths with him, and now, suddenly, comes this sliver of humanity. As he’s reminded for the first time in eons that he’s worth loving after all, we’re reminded that our initial conception of this man was not accurate. Stern and unsmiling as he may be, he is a man who has tried to do his part for the good of his students, and who is well-aware that he has made mistakes. He is worthy of this gift—worthy of goodness. No man with a heart that knows humility should be denied compassion, endearing or not. To accept them could mean the difference between an empty existence and one of unmitigated happiness. The little kindnesses we pass along are often the biggest miracles in the world, as is the case with Crocker-Harris and the book given him by Tiplow.
It is easy to tell stories about the Mr. Chips of the world. The Crocker-Harris’ are more likely to be passed over because they are harder to pin down, so they are doomed to anonymity. After all, why should we be compelled to remember people who did nothing to deserve a place in our memories? The Browning Version makes a case for those people all the same, for regardless of how successfully they imprint themselves on others, they, too, are mortals who suffer and pine. They, too, are humans who wish to be loved and befriended. All they lack, really, are the means. Crippling introversion, poor social skills, overwhelming self-doubt—these all can be inhibiting factors. But deep within, they would like nothing more than to make meaningful contact and share themselves with an interested party. To be reminded that their existence isn’t for naught.
I know this life. I’m trying my best not to live it. The fate Crocker-Harris suffers is nearly worse than death, because everyone he knows has given up on him and treat him like Death itself. While I don’t know why Terence Rattigan wrote this play, I thank him for bringing it into this world because it understands so truly and so deeply what being misunderstood means. The depths of its suffering are excruciating, while the miracle of Tiplow’s kindness to Crocker-Harris is its most astonishing moment of grace. Astonishing because, in any other story, it would hardly warrant a second mention, while here it is akin to seeing the face of God for the first time. And that is how it is in life. To think you are doomed to a life of solitude, and then to receive a small signal that turns things around completely. And when you have Michael Redgrave giving one of the best performances in cinematic history on top of it all, there’s not much else left to say other than: bravo.
The Browning Version is available on DVD from Criterion and can also be streamed on The Criterion Channel.