Friday, August 19, 2011

#294: The Browning Version

(Anthony Asquith, 1951)

Directed a year before his flawless adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, Anthony Asquith's The Browning Version is a very different kind of British theater adaptation. Yet both films (and plays) are almost stereotypically British, representing the respective essences of the culture's dry wit and high-class drama. (Asquith also directed Pygmalion years before, in my opinion his masterpiece and by far the best adaptation of that play - music or no.) The Browning Version is one of the more well-regarded members of that niche subgenre that encompasses everything from Goodbye Mr. Chips to Mr. Holland's Opus: the aging-teacher drama. Like the opposite (but much more frequent) coming-of-age drama, the aging-teacher drama can be deeply moving or soaked in sentimentality and manipulation. Often, the line seems razor thin between the two, but the best of each manages to hit the notes in a natural and seemingly effortless way.

The Browning Version is extremely satisfying in this regard. But it's also the opposite of stodgy - something British dramas can suffer from. The film has stylistic moments that flirt with noir techniques, and the story alternates between tragedy and quiet optimism in the classiest manner. Asquith is also one of the most talented directors ever at translating plays into film - a deceptively difficult task that often hamstrings lesser directors who are either too focused on hiding the material's stage-bound settings or too comfortable simply capturing the play on film. Asquith is confident enough to know when to let the script breathe and when to have his cinematic technique take over.

Then there is Michael Redgrave at the center of the film, giving a superb performance. Despite his preference for the theater, his work here is not theatrical - it's a justifiably understated performance where nothing else would do. I wouldn't go so far as to say The Browning Version is a classic or a must-see. But it's the kind of movie that is rarely made anymore - particularly within the studio system in the US, if at all. That's not depressing because a film like The Browning Version gives us an especially searing or unique look at the human condition, but because it is genuinely entertaining and moving - something of which people often seem to forget dramas are very much capable.

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