June 11, 2009

The Browning Version

Anthony Asquith's Browning Version is a study in failure. Let us start from first things though, the film concerns a classics teacher, Andrew Crocker Harris, at an unnamed public school in southern England. Crocker Harris came to the school with glowing academic credentials from Oxford, he came but he did not conquer. In the early years as a master he reveals he was mocked, now he is merely disliked- the Himmler of the lower fifth. Crocker Harris has failed as a teacher- Taplow (pictured above with Crocker Harris) for example bemoans the fact that the school master does not teach the classics as stories in their own right but as examples of Latin and Greek grammar. He cannot convey to his pupils the feeling of beauty that he himself gets from those august works of antiquity- he attempted, we learn, once to do so through poetry but was unable to render Aeschylus into English or to finish his translation. His efforts in the school room are just as flawed. Crocker Harris's class room is a zone of orderliness and boredom- as he hands down Latin witticisms from his chair, the boys in the pews whisper their discontent, calling him the Crock behind his back and speculating over whether he is really human.

Life as a failure taints every aspect of his existance. This film contains one of the bitterest portraits of marital breakdown in cinema- Crocker Harris's wife believed when she married him that he might make master of Eton, instead he has made a master of a small public school and is being retired. She despises him, she cannot pity him. She has turned her husband's failure into a reason to hate him- furthermore he is not the romantic hero that she imagined to have married. Instead she turns to affairs. But it is her callousness towards Andrew Crocker-Harris rather than her sexual incontinence that repels the viewer: one can understand however when you see how Crocker Harris behaves to his pupils that a life with him could be a life of slow torture. Overly punctilious and precise, under emotional and verbose, Andrew Crocker Harris is neither exciting nor sympathetic- that his wife's repulsion adds to his sad condition and his condition to her repulsion is a cycle of sad negative feedback that one feels was set in motion from the first day of their marriage.

Failure is not an easy condition- nor, as this film demonstrates, is it a sympathetic condition. Crocker Harris is frequently referred to as dead- his pupils say he is dead and even he says that he is dead. A corpse is not good company. The problem is that failure as the film demonstrates builds on itself. Crocker Harris's failure has led to him becoming impassive- he will not answer back, will not stand in the way of the disrespect for him from others, he has become both an unpleasant caricature and a coward but for understandable reasons. What the film implies though is something that a cognitive behavioural therapist might argue, Crocker Harris if he is to acheive recovery has to acheive bravery. In a sense part of the problem, the film implies, with the man is that he looks back on his past not forward on his future- he looks to obligation rather than to opportunity. Of course the film complicates and muddies this perception- Crocker Harris's colleague and cuckolder Mr Hunter thinks rather too much of opportunity and too little of obligation and learns the opposite lesson, but Crocker Harris's condition is worse. An addiction to tradition and obligation have turned him from a conservative into a fossil- incapable of preserving even that (the classics) that he cares so much for.


James Higham said...

For a person who actually is interested in history and knows a little about it, the average historical documentary doesn't really seem to give you a good understanding of the history that it talks about.

Well yes and that is the problem with blogging as well. You seem to have solved it with a compromise and consequently there's depth to what you do. Also, the advantage is the hyperlink, which is difficult with a documentary.

Peter said...

Have you seen the more recent version? Sounds a lot like this one, and I'd highly recommend it.