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'The Browning Version' (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1994

If "The Browning Version" proves anything, it's that a good story is hard to mangle. Director Mike Figgis's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1939 play is cluttered with petty and pointless concessions to modern times. But the movie, which stars Albert Finney, Greta Scacchi and Matthew Modine, upholds most of the original drama's heart-wrenching highlights.

Set in the emotionally rarefied atmosphere of a British private school, "The Browning Version" is buttressed by Finney's brooding performance. As Andrew Crocker-Harris, a cold, unpopular teacher who comes to realize that his career, marriage and life have been miserable failures, his almost-Nixonian tenor is the film's greatest asset. It's no coincidence that his name smacks of crockery—hard, cold, unmalleable and, if broken, virtually impossible to repair.

Advised by a doctor to take up less strenuous work, ailing Crocker-Harris is obliged to cut his career short at the Abbey School, where he has taught Greek and Latin for 18 years. As Crocker-Harris and his highly popular, adulterous wife (Scacchi) prepare to leave, the crusty teacher is touched by a generous gift from a teenage student called Taplow (Ben Silverstone). But Taplow's offering—Robert Browning's poetic translation of Aeschylus's "Agamemnon"—becomes a cruel, decisive catalyst in the lives of Crocker-Harris, his wife and physics teacher Frank Hunter (Modine). Things change for all of them.

In his attempt to update the play (and appeal to younger, American audiences), scriptwriter Ronald Harwood gratuitously turns Hunter into an American, throws in a dead-end subplot involving an 18-year-old bully, and sweetens the ending so Scacchi can leave this movie looking nicer than her character is meant to. All Harwood needed was a little more faith in Rattigan, whose film adaptation for the 1951 movie of the same name remains the best "Version" of all. (Video store owners are standing by right now to take your orders.) However, for those unacquainted with the older stuff, Figgis's film—which also features Julian Sands and Michael Gambon—is likely to do the trick. At least Harwood reprises my favorite dialogue interchange from the 1951 movie. In that production, headmaster Wilfred Hyde-White absent-mindedly asks a pupil: "Well, Fortescue and how's your dear mother?"

"Well, thank you, sir," replies the schoolboy, looking a trifle troubled. "My name's Wilson, sir."

"Quite," says Hyde-White, "but your mother's well just the same?"

Yet, even though he reproduces this encounter, Harwood feels compelled to change the names. What's wrong with Fortescue and Wilson? What's wrong with something that works, no matter how "old" it is?

THE BROWNING VERSION (R) — Contains nothing offensive except minor profanity and Matthew Modine trying to act.

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