Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Browning Version (1951)

Synopsis: Old school teacher leaves his school due to ill health and comes to terms with what he sees as his failures as a classics master (and husband).

Adapted from the play by Terence Rattigan, this film is fairly sparse and lean, and doesn't pull any emotional punches. The story focuses on the teacher, Andrew Crocker-Harris, his wife Millie, her lover Frank and one of Crocker-Harris' pupils, Taplow. It takes place over the final two days of his tenure at an English public school as the classics master.

We quickly come to realise, through some neat shots of the wife and her lover at morning prayers, that this teacher is not only unpopular amongst the student body but also with his nearest and, supposedly, dearest. She's embittered at years of being with someone whom she describes as already dead (at least emotionally) and is furious when she discovers that he's not to be given a pension.

The scenes between Frank and Millie are first rate, with Jean Kent giving a desperate performance of a woman with nothing left and nothing gained in her life. Her pathetic attempts to cling to Frank (in private and in public) are almost embarrassing to watch - we are watching her failures as a wife too. Frank turns out to be somewhat of a good guy and attempts a reconciliation with Crocker-Harris. He, along with Taplow, also spurs him on to his final act of redemption.

Taplow, for his part, innocently inspires Crocker-Harris to see that he has not been a total failure as a teacher. He has lit a fire in Taplow, and Taplow in turn responds with kindness and pity on his master. It is the giving of the titular gift that is the dramatic turning point for Crocker-Harris, it is the catalyst for the actions that will partly save him.

There's a great juxtaposition with another teacher, Fletcher, the school hero, leaving to play cricket for England. We see how much he is loved by the boys but when he gives his farewell speech we realise that he's a dumb lunk with no real substance. Funnily enough, his empty speech talking of the school sports achievements reminded me of this gem from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

His farewell speech to the school had me blubbing. It's not completely sentimental and strikes just the right chord, with the camera focusing on Taplow and Frank urging him on. Never has the phrase 'I am sorry' sounded so deeply felt and tragic. I dare you to watch it and not cry:

We will all experience failure in our lives and it is only with sympathy and encouragement (ironically what Crocker-Harris thinks a teacher should provide) from those around that can set us right again. Even though there are some cruel lessons in this story (especially with Millie, Frank and the treatment of Crocker-Harris at the hands of his employer) this is a gentle, kind film that gives courage and inspiration to us all, as our lives may not always be turning out how we had hoped.

More info:

No comments:

Post a Comment