The themes of Terence Rattigan’s play “The Browning Version” seem curiously out of date in a modern context. That proves both a pitfall and a strength for this new “Version.” The issues of tradition, classical knowledge and history are all the more potent given the passage of time and attitude, but it is inevitably a rarefied audience that will respond to these themes today. In the best of circumstances, that would mean a comparable commercial response to “The Remains of the Day,” which it resembles in tone. More likely, its specificity to British academia will translate into modest returns from a decidedly upscale crowd.
It’s been more than four decades since Anthony Asquith’s original screen adaptation, in which Michael Redgrave assayed the role of Andrew Crocker-Harris, a public school teacher with a bad ticker who’s facing a forced, early retirement. Albert Finney puts his unique stamp on the role, effecting a heaviness that suggests a hard crust shielding a marshmallow center. At any moment, that facade could cave in on itself, and herein lies his precarious physical nature.
Crocker-Harris is about to vacate his seat for a less stressful life of teaching English to foreigners. But for two decades he was the stern master of Latin and he will not succumb to sentimentality in his closing days.
The tragedy of this sometimes ridiculous man is multifold. The discipline he brings to the classroom goes on recess in the outside world. His marriage to Laura (Greta Scacchi) is a sham propelled by his inability to stand up for his position at the school. Her extra-curricular activity is centered around Frank Hunter (Matthew Modine), the brash, well-liked Yank teaching chemistry.
Hunter, however, is increasingly anxious about the situation. Like Crocker-Harris’ past students, he’s in awe of the man’s discipline and decency.
But underneath the oppressive drama there is the beating heart in the form of the student who “gets it.” Young Taplow (Ben Silverston) is touched by the humanity of the august scholar who never reached his potential. When he’s given Aeschylus, it’s not a bunch of tongue-twisting words to memorize but an endearing passion play that speaks to today.
The loving, heartfelt nature of the production reaches to every crevice of the film. The filmmakers are all Taplows, striving desperately to do well in class. The look is just right, elegiac yet cloistered and made of a rich brocade of visual and emotional fabric.
Ronald Harwood’s adaptation has abridged the original without diluting its most potent contemporary resonances. It provides Scacchi and Modine with meatier roles than they have more commonly limned. Finney is masterful at the center and helmer Mike Figgis excels in the traditional setting.
Unquestionably a difficult sell, “The Browning Version” will need some high-powered assistance and imaginative hands to reach its market potential. But it’s questionable that this can hope for a better fate than Paramount’s last British venture, “Wuthering Heights,” which was never released in the U.S.