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'The Browning Version' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 17, 1994

Everyone has had a teacher who left him dumbstruck with terror and awe. At the exclusive Abbey School in Mike Figgis's moving "The Browning Version," Andrew Crocker-Harris (Albert Finney) is just such a figure. For nearly two decades he has served as a classics professor, laboring to instill in England's future leaders the same passion for the Greeks and Romans that has guided his life.

He hasn't had much luck, nor has he won the affection of the students, who refer to him as the "Hitler of the Lower Fifth." When it is announced at the beginning of this adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1948 play that Mr. Crocker-Harris will be leaving the school, few tears are shed. Ill health is the reason given for his departure, but soon it becomes clear that the study of ancient languages is no longer the priority it once was, and that for all his intellectual prowess, Crocker-Harris is something of a dinosaur.

As he was in the 1951 film version with Michael Redgrave, Crocker-Harris is a symbol of an era of fading glory. Here, the arrival of Mr. Gilbert (Julian Sands), who will set up a more modern language department concentrating on French, German and Spanish, is meant to signify a lowering of standards—a giving-way to the contemporary world that the stone walls of the Abbey School have repelled for centuries.

A great actor needn't do much to bring a character to life, and certainly Finney is a great actor, and just as certainly, he doesn't do much here. Unfortunately, he makes Crocker-Harris such a lost, defeated soul that it is difficult to see the merit in following his example. Crocker-Harris is a dull man, but Finney does manage to create some sympathy for him, especially in the scenes dealing with his disenchanted, unfaithful wife, Laura (Greta Scacchi). And he is marvelous reading a scene from "Agamemnon"—in Greek, no less. But most of his time on-screen is spent staring pensively into midair.

Finney does create an impressive image of decay, but because the script doesn't provide some sense of what the man was in the past, the power of his performance is blunted. A hint of the old master's youthful promise is meant to be furnished by the American professor with whom Mrs. Crocker-Harris is having an affair, but Matthew Modine seems flummoxed by the role, as if he knows that the wrong note is being struck every time he opens his mouth.

Scacchi is far more authoritative as the wife who has seen her husband's soul wither away by degrees. "Agamemnon" functions as a motif throughout the film, and with her stern, merciless eyes, Scacchi makes a convincing modern Clytemnestra. Her husband, though, is anything but a hero king. His stature as a teacher is slightly restored when a fragile young student gives him a translation of the Aeschylus play—the so-called Browning version—as a going-away present. But the usually competent Figgis can't disguise the anticlimax of the Rattigan play's ending. Ultimately, we're not sure whether to feel sorry for Crocker-Harris or to call him a cab.

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