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The Browning Version: The Criterion Collection (1951)

Arriving in 1951 — and remade three times since — Anthony Asquith's The Browning Version remains a hallmark of classical postwar British cinema. In the dozen or so years between the end of World War II and the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague aesthetic, Britain's most notable directors turned out a remarkable string of films. David Lean, Carol Reed, Powell & Pressburger, and Anthony Asquith also held keen literary bents. That, and their access to actors who had a wealth of experience on the London stage, lent their films the sort of distinction Hollywood couldn't muster — nor wouldn't, as long as Technicolor musicals remained big sellers. Based on the one-act play by Terence Rattigan (who also crafted the extended screenplay), The Browning Version concerns just four people. New science schoolmaster Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick) is about to begin teaching his first term at an elite English boys school. His arrival coincides with a departure — classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) has chosen to retire, due to poor health, and will take up a lesser-paying teaching position in the fall at a smaller school. After 18 years of service, Crocker-Harris is hoping to be awarded a pension, for without it he will be dependent upon his wife's small endowment and his own meager teacher's salary. As for Millie Crocker-Harris (Jean Kent), she expects to be looked after by her husband, if little else. She's been carrying on an affair with none other than Frank Hunter, and she hopes that he will join her while she's away during the summer holidays.

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A subtle film that often reveals its origins as a stage production, The Browning Version is more character study than story, firmly anchored by a memorable performance from Michael Redgrave. Theater-trained, Redgrave was renowned for his ability to lose himself in a role, and one only has to compare his performance here with his turn one year later in Asquith's The Importance of Being Earnest (in which he played the Bunburying bachelor Jack) to witness his skill — in The Browning Version he is fully, convincingly 20 years older, and with no more makeup than a touch of white in his hair. A peer of Laurence Olivier, Redgrave also mastered the pre-Method "outside-in" acting style, in which his characterization arrives fully formed from his appearance, dress, and things that surround him. Often speaking in high, hesitant tones, in words that sound as if they were rehearsed, Andrew Crocker-Harris is a spiritually wounded man (more than once he's referred to as "dead" or a "corpse") whose youthful ambitions were slowly eroded by nearly two decades of teaching and not a single promotion. As such, his great passions — for literature, verse, and drama — are hidden away, concealed by the stuffy British reserve he maintains just under his black schoolmaster's robe. Disliked by his students for his harsh manner and resigned to a hollow marriage, Crocker-Harris appears to consider his life merely something to endure — at least until his student Taplow (Brian Smith) reveals himself to be an admirer of the Greek classics, and at the end of term presents his schoolmaster with Robert Browning's verse translation of Clytemnestra. It's a small event, but one that swiftly brings this small, fragile universe into a quiet crashing down. As Hunter, Nigel Patrick serves as the story's effective catalyst, while Jean Kent's portrayal of Millie is as close to a femme fatale as this era of British cinema would approach. But despite these two solid performances, they pale in comparison to Michael Redgrave's. As Andrew Crocker-Harris, he delivers an actor's clinic on iconography — to such a degree that the soft-spoken, shattered man he creates and inhabits upstages the film itself. Criterion's DVD release of The Browning Version features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33;1 OAR) from a black-and-white source-print that's nearly flawless, while the original monaural audio (on a DD 1.0 track) is clear and free of extraneous noise. Supplements include a commentary from film historian Bruce Eder, a 19 min. interview with Mike Figgis (who directed the 1994 remake), and an archive interview with Michael Redgrave, who discusses the life of a stage actor working in the cinema (6 min.). The enclosed booklet also features an essay by Geoffrey Macnab. Keep-case.

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