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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Browning': Finney's Restraint Shines in This Version


Adapted from the celebrated Terence Rattigan play, "The Browning Version" is a high-class tear-jerker, but Albert Finney's performance is considerably more than that. As Andrew Crocker-Harris, the classics professor for more than two decades at a posh British boys' school, Finney is remarkably good at conveying the rumblings of emotion in this musty, disappointed man. Finney doesn't slobber us with sentiment. His restraint really shines.

Rattigan's warhorse, which he expanded for the screen in the famous 1951 film starring Michael Redgrave, is the kind of material where every emotion is calibrated, every nuance signaled. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood has done an intelligent job updating the material, and Mike Figgis has directed with enormous tact, but, excepting Finney's performance, the film doesn't really work up a sweat. It's no "Dead Poets Society" jamboree (thankfully). "The Browning Version" keeps its cool even though it's mostly about people in misery, and maybe that's a clue to its highbrowish appeal. It presents a way of dealing with suffering that allows art-house audiences the opportunity to sniffle stoically. Its pathos won't run your makeup.

Crocker-Harris is married to a considerably younger woman, Laura (Greta Scacchi), who is having an affair with the chemistry professor, Frank (Matthew Modine), an American teaching in England through an exchange program. The love went out of their marriage long ago; what's left is mostly spite and recrimination.

For most of the movie she picks away at her mate, as he recoils and disapproves. It's like a stuffed-shirt rendering of a Strindberg marriage, and Harwood hasn't softened very much Rattigan's borderline cruelty toward Laura. She's the villain of the piece--her lover is merely deluded by her rapacious wiles. We can't quite see in Laura the young woman who would have been entranced by the brainy classics scholar. Scacchi doesn't provide the soundings of character that might humanize her.

The core relationship in "The Browning Version" is really between Crocker-Harris and Taplow (Ben Silverstone), a student who--realizing what a hated reputation his teacher has with his classmates--warms up to him anyway. Taplow doesn't entirely fit in with the other students; he still retains a fresh-faced idealism that has already been drummed out of his mates. He's not a terribly swift student but he's open to experience, and so he's open to what Crocker-Harris can teach him--not only about Aeschylus but about life. It takes a while for Crocker-Harris to perceive the boy's innate decency, but when he does--when Taplow gifts him with a secondhand copy of Robert Browning's translation of the "Agamemnon"--he's deeply, unspeakably moved.

Finney plays this scene, and the subsequent scene when he believes he has been taken for a fool, with the utmost artistry. When Crocker-Harris' brittle, settled reserve shatters it's almost unbearable to watch. He has assumed so many layers of protection that his rawness has a tragic, unseemly power.

As Michael Redgrave played him, Crocker-Harris was a parched sufferer who looked primped as if by an undertaker; it was a great performance, but Finney's, more bullish and hefty, is equally amazing. Finney gives us a man whose correspondence with the classics is a key to his faraway glaze.

In his sessions with his students he must play the bemused tyrant to make them learn, and that degrades his life. That's why he's so replenished when Taplow makes a gesture of friendship: The boy inscribes a Greek quotation in the Browning gift, and it's as if Crocker-Harris had received a holy book. In moments like these, "The Browning Version" is great. A flash of human decency burns into high drama.

* MPAA rating: R, for some language. Times guidelines: It includes a few cuss words, which do not justify the harshness of an R rating .

'The Browning Version'

Albert Finney: Andrew Crocker-Harris Greta Scacchi: Laura Matthew Modine: Frank Julian Sands: Tom Gilbert A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Percy Main production. Director Mike Figgis. Producers Ridley Scott and Mimi Polk. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood based on the play by Terence Rattigan. Editor Herve Schneid. Cinematographer Jean Francois Robin. Costumes Fotini Dimou. Music Mark Isham. Production design John Beard. Set dresser Crispian Sallis. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

* In limited release at the Westside Pavilion, 10800 Pico Blvd. (310) 475-0202.

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