The Browning Version
1994 Directed by Mike Figgis. Starring Albert Finney, Greta Scacchi, Matthew Modine, Ben Silverstone, Julian Sands.
REVIEWED By Jeff Mccord, Fri., Dec. 16, 1994
An errant legislator, when asked to come up with a new motto for his home state of Arkansas, proposed the inspired “Not As Bad As You Might Think,” a slogan which equally suits this curious remake of The Browning Version. Exactly why did Brit wunderkind Mike Figgis, the arty, noirish auteur behind Liebestraum and Stormy Monday, choose to film a stodgy 1940s play about a repressed boarding school teacher? On paper, it seems one of those legendary bad ideas, right up there with giving David Lynch millions to make Dune. The subject is not exactly topical. In fact, the British boys' school experience is so male, so British, and so overdone that the genre should cozy up on the couch of semi-retirement, right next to the musical. Still, on occasion The Browning Version works, due to a dependably strong and touching performance by Albert Finney. Finney relishes in the pathos of his character Andrew Crocker-Harris, a classicist who hammers Latin and Greek down his students' throats, is known as “the Hitler of the lower 5th,” and is obsessed by Aeschylus' Agamemnon. Passive, shut-down, forced into early retirement, cheated from his pension, hated by his students, and tortured by his unfaithful wife, his final days at the school forge his breaking point. And therein lies the problem. Why would an intelligent man spend most of his life with seemingly no idea what people think of him, or no clue about how badly he is treating others and being treated himself? Parallels are drawn to the Agamemnon story (its verse translation by poet Browning leads to the title) and how wife Clytemnestra destroys her husband Agamemnon (though to be fair, Agamemnon's previous sacrifice of their daughter is never mentioned), yet the metaphor is strained. Crocker-Harris' revelations seem trivialized, and important final scenes fall flat as a result. Still, Finney has his moments and, ultimately, makes the experience worthwhile. Aside from the move to present day and a softened ending, the film virtually mirrors the by-the-book, literal approach of its 1951 original. Director Figgis' previous efforts have been long on atmosphere and short on most everything else, but none of his visual excess is on display here. As with the supporting cast, his work is well done, but subdued and stifled -- much like the setting itself, and come to think of it, the entire country.