Terence Rattigan's screenplay for "The Browning Version" expands and greatly improves his short stage play of the same name. The title refers to a translation by the poet, Robert Browning, of "Agamemnon," a classical Greek tragedy. The film's protagonist, Andrew Crocker-Harris, an English private school teacher brilliantly played by Michael Redgrave, once wrote a translation of "Agamemnon," and has been trying for years to teach 14-year-old boys to read the Greek original. Because of poor health and general dissatisfaction with his performance, he has resigned his position.
In the tragedy, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, aided by her lover. In the film, Crocker-Harris is spiritually dead, partly from spousal "murder," although the slaughter has been reciprocal, and his wife, Millie, is in worse shape than he. In tragedies, the hero starts out happy and becomes miserable. In this film, full of the sadness of professional and domestic failure, Crocker-Harris moves away from misery, via understanding and heartfelt repentance, to the possibility of happiness.
The reversal owes much to the intervention of Taplow, one of Crocker-Harris' students, and of Frank Hunter, his colleague and Millie's lover. The film deftly introduces these "good Samaritans" in a lively dispute, in which they display the personal qualities that will make them helpful to Crocker-Harris. Both are spirited, bold, good-natured, intelligent and well-rounded.
An interesting question is why they come to the rescue of Crocker-Harris and not of his wife. Her coarse brutality toward Crocker-Harris is hard to forgive, but so is his refined humiliation of students. At the outset, two huge defeats, heart disease and forced resignation, invite our compassion for him. His language, beautifully dressed, raised in pitch but never in volume, quiet, clear, restrained, invites attention and leaves room for helpers. Following Taplow's lead, we start the film wondering what is wrong, and hoping to fix it. But most important, Taplow and Hunter appreciate this man, who is really dying to be liked. They like him, and they don't like Millie.
My only criticism of the screenplay is the audience response, at a school assembly, to Crocker-Harris' farewell speech. The reaction is not realistic, I think, given the school's long-established fear and rejection of this man. But it is surely our reaction, after what we have just experienced.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Terence Rattigan was awarded Best Screenplay and Michael Redgrave, Best Actor. Emphatically deserved! The film is beautifully directed by Anthony Asquith, with a fine cast, especially Brian Smith as Taplow and Nigel Patrick as Hunter. (This review is based on the VHS edition.)