This lavish but lackluster version of Terence Rattigan's THE BROWNING VERSION offers a good dramatic workout by Albert Finney and little else.
Finney plays Andrew Crocker-Harris, a strict English professor at a contemporary British boys' school, who is about to retire due to a heart ailment. Andrew is disliked by all but one of his students, a shy, inquisitive boy named Taplow (Ben Silverston). Andrew's wife, Laura (Greta Scacchi), who
despises her husband, carries on an affair with an American teacher, Frank Hunter (Matthew Modine). Shortly before his retirement, Andrew argues with his replacement, Tom Gilbert (Julian Sands), about the content of the class curriculum. He also shares his appreciation of Robert Browning's poem,
"Armageddon," with young Taplow. On the day of the school cricket match, Taplow gives Andrew a copy of the Browning translation of Aeschylus. Andrew is deeply touched by the gift, but Laura ridicules it as a ploy by Taplow to curry favor with Andrew.
Laura scolds Andrew for his placid acceptance of a retirement package that has no pension and only a minor speaking spot during closing ceremonies. Andrew then decides he should speak last, and informs the head of the school, Dr. Frobisher (Michael Gambon), of his wish. Meanwhile, Taplow, who
has been bullied by one of his schoolmates, finds the courage to retaliate by putting worms in the bully's bed. Fed up, Laura decides to leave Andrew, but she stays long enough to listen to his speech at the school, which is a heartfelt apology for not being kinder. Laura and the students are
overwhelmed by Andrew's soliloquy and cheer for him as he leaves the school for the last time.
In updating Terence Rattigan's 1939 play and the 1951 screen adaptation of THE BROWNING VERSION, screenwriter Ronald Harwood has added a black student and his visiting parents, some mild profanity, and a superficial debate about multi-culturalism; still, this remake feels more old-fashioned than
ever. Loading the dice against contemporary approaches to the curriculum, and baldly offering Laura as the embodiment of feminine evil described in "Armageddon," this BROWNING VERSION is arguably more hidebound than the original. Stylistically, this remake has more in common with BBC television
reworkings of literary classics than director Mike Figgis's earlier films (STORMY MONDAY, INTERNAL AFFAIRS).
Figgis's intermittently moody, stylish technique actually works against the material, foreshadowing events (e.g., revelations and plot twists) that never occur. At least the production values are generally above-average. The most rewarding aspect of this new BROWNING VERSION is Albert Finney's
expert, well-modulated performance as the anti-"Mr. Chips." Finney even manages to make tolerable a maudlin crying scene in the middle of the story. Greta Scacchi is less well cast as Laura, but she turns in a convincing performance as a young woman who has quickly grown bored and bitter. Ben
Silverston is appealing as the admiring student, but the talents of the other actors in the cast (Modine, Sands, and Gambon, as well as Maryam D'Abo in a small role) are under-utilized at best. THE BROWNING VERSION is stiff and cautious, like its leading character, which is surprising, given
director Figgis's track record. But not even Ken Russell could have made much out of this musty, outdated property. (Nudity, sexual situations, profanity.)
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