FILM / The old school: Adam Mars-Jones on The Browning Version and the British talent for repressed emotions

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The Browning Version brings together a playwright, Terence Rattigan, whose reputation now stands higher than at any time since the 1950s (thanks to careful theatrical revivals); a director, Mike Figgis, returning to work in Britain after a Hollywood period that included one solid success (Internal Affairs) and two disappointments, and a leading actor, Albert Finney, with a reputation based mainly on work done in the 1960s. It isn't exactly a triumph for any of the three, but it is Finney who emerges with most credit, in a part far from his usual territory.

Finney isn't necessarily too young to play Rattigan's hero, Andrew Crocker-Harris, retiring for health reasons after 18 years at a venerable school, but he is inherently too vital, more suited to showing sourness and frustration than the required dryness. This actor, after all, will always be identified not only with one part, Tom Jones, but one scene, the seduction over dinner. Crocker-Harris - 'the Crock' - is far removed from such a celebration of appetite. In Tom Jones's place, the Crock would keep his eyes on the plate, use his knife and fork, and then just politely push his food around with them.

Not every detail of Finney's performance works. When, for instance, Crocker-Harris explains a contorted piece of classical wordplay to the single pupil, Taplow, who seems to find him a sympathetic figure, saying, 'I wouldn't try it on any of your friends, it isn't particularly funny,' Finney makes the line unduly light, so that an admission of having no sense of humour becomes a low-key demonstration of just such a sense. The forlorn, the wintry, the flatly defeated, all these are out of Finney's range still.

There is a latent virility even to the character's pedantry in Finney's portrayal, though it helps that his Crock has a click on some consonants that suggests a dental plate. And when he addresses the Lower Fifth as 'classicists', projecting the word through a hideous grimace - as if indifferent teenagers are going to be won over by this flattering description - he sounds strong paradoxical notes of self-hatred and vanity.

It is in the big moments of stolid pain and masochistic fairness, when the character seems to take sides against himself, that Finney really delivers.

The director, though, pumps far too much music into these scenes, and the normally reliable composer, Mark Isham, introduces a snare drum, of all instruments, as the Crock's musical representative on the soundtrack.

Sorrowfully soaring strings, fine; heavenly choirs, if you feel you must; but a snare drum?

Ronald Harwood's script makes the perilous decision to abandon a period setting (the original play dates from 1939). The Abbey School in this Browning Version is a place where the staff tease an American teacher visiting on an exchange programme for saying 'Cut along' to get rid of boys who pester him, when their preferred phrase for this purpose is 'Fuck off'.

Multiculturalism is invoked by the screenplay, but the few non-whites on screen have no real function (Nigerians politely applaud the tribal ritual of cricket). It's just possible to see this as making a sly point about multiculturalism itself, a new word that makes no difference.

The changes of setting don't make the school implausible (so perversely flexible are our institutions), but they do have an eroding effect on the central character. When the boys (Harwood has not been so crazed with modernity as to make the school co-ed) meet the Crock's replacement, their body language - broad smiles and hands in pockets - expresses an adult ease.

When the Crock himself enters, announced by music so ominous as to verge on the Gothic, they regress half a decade in apparent age, or half a century in social attitudes.

In 1939, most members of the play's original audience would have paid lip service, at least, to the idea that the classics were at the heart of the national culture. To a contemporary audience, the changes to the curriculum suggested by Crock's replacement (Julian Sands) seem timid rather than radical, and the makers of the film have only the dimmest idea of what the Crock's life was about, or they would have gone to the trouble of giving the actor playing Taplow (Ben Silverstone) a Greek text to translate Aeschylus from, rather than a Penguin Classic. The boy is more than promising, he must be clairvoyant.

It may be that Rattigan, by making his hero - apparently unable to satisfy his wife (in love with her but unable to provide the sort of love she needs) -a lover of Greek, was alluding to his own proscribed condition, to Greek male love. But in an Abbey School where four-letter words are common currency between boys and staff, and where the pupils listen to rap music before the gala cricket match, what sort of taboo could there be? It becomes odd in this new setting that everyone is obsessed with marital unhappiness and the broken home to the exclusion of any other social issue, and Rattigan's knack of connecting his own estrangement with broader patterns of unfulfilment goes for nothing.

At the end of the film, the worm turns, but in a bizarre way. Where Taplow at least gets his own back on a hated prefect, putting actual worms in his bed, the Crock takes revenge on himself in an act of verbal hara-kiri at the end-of-term prizegiving. His wife (Greta Scacchi) has told him that she could forgive him everything if he once said 'No' to the world, and she reacts as if he's done just that, when in fact he has said 'No' to himself, laying into his own failures as a teacher. Perhaps Rattigan, here prescribing more masochism as the cure for masochism, shows his suitability for the current cycle of films about the emotional failings of the British.

But if failure is our national religion, we can't expect it to make converts. Can there be a moratorium, please, on films full of old stone and old lawns and people who can't express what they feel? Let's rest on our soggy laurels for a while. We've proved time and time again that we do inadequacy better than anyone in the world.

(Photograph omitted)