FILM / The play's the thing, Mr Harwood: The Browning Version (15); A Midsummer Night's Dream (U); Fear of a Black Hat (15); Major League II (15); Rapa Nui (12)

Quentin Curtis
Sunday 30 October 1994 00:02

THE AGONY and the elitism of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version (15) are caught in an anecdote Rattigan's first biographers told about its composition: 'One day while he was at work on it, his manservant came in to find tears streaming down his face.' There you have the starchy, upper-class world of the play - a public school in the late 1940s - and the terrible, private pain that courses through it. In Andrew Crocker-Harris (Albert Finney), a teacher about to take early retirement, whose brilliant classical scholarship has long since soured into finicky self-parody, Rattigan created one of the great figures of the post-war English stage. And in the drawing-room formality of his well-made play, Rattigan found the perfect structure for reflecting the hard casing of a stifled soul.

All this is true of the play, but sadly little of it applies to Mike Figgis's film. The opening credits reveal that it is 'based on' Rattigan's work - that curt, condescending phrase that so often spells disaster. If, like me, you admire Rattigan's work, watching the film will be like seeing a close friend being mugged. Ronald Harwood has adapted the play with distressing crudity.

He has added nothing and removed masses.

The plot remains largely the same. Crocker-Harris's wife (Greta Scacchi) is having an affair with a young master (Matthew Modine - incongruously, the character has become an American). Term, and the school year, are drawing to a close. Premature retirement coldly beckons Crocker-Harris, because of his weak heart - and without the compensation of a pension. The plot still hinges on the gift to Crocker- Harris from a pupil, Taplow (the excellent Ben Silverstone, younger and less drippish than the usual interpretation), of an edition of Robert Browning's translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon. Only at the last, having begun to realise that he is not only derided, but actually feared and hated, Crocker-Harris finds this gift, with its flattering inscription ('God from afar looks graciously upon a kindly master'), deeply moving.

The play, which lasts little more than an hour, takes place entirely in Crocker-Harris's sitting-room, where through a series of conversations Rattigan creates a drama of delicate devastation, a harrowing study of the need for emotional honesty - but also of its appalling cost. By comparison, the film is clumsy indeed. With a school prospectus's desire to show every picturesque spot of the grounds, it is unable to stay still. It has little respect for the arid poetry of Rattigan's speeches, the monologues by which Crocker-Harris slowly reveals his soul to us - and for the first time to himself. Now and then we catch a snatch of the original, a line or a phrase -glimmers of greatness in the void.

Harwood has added a new, irrelevant story line, in which a bully taunts Taplow about his parents' divorce. The tormentor's lines are of a banality that is suggestive more of the jaded playwright than any schoolboy.

Elsewhere, lines and motifs from the original are hideously mangled. Both play and film climax in an act of appalling cruelty towards her husband by Mrs Crocker-Harris - an example of the candour that kills. In the play, she justifies herself: 'You can't hurt Andrew. He's dead.' But in the movie, nonsensically, a version of this speech is given to one of the boys, who, near the beginning, explains to a friend that Crocker-Harris wouldn't be capable of having a heart attack, because he 'has no heart'. And on and on it goes, padding out Rattigan's lean masterpiece with needless flab and fluff. 'What happened to him?' Modine asks Scacchi of Crocker-Harris. 'I did,' she replies. A nice line, but jarringly close to a steal from Sunset Boulevard - a film that in the movie's new modern setting would hardly be current.

What dignity this farrago possesses is provided by Albert Finney. A roll-call of actors who have played Crocker-Harris on stage and screen indicates the quality of the part: Eric Portman (in the original), John Gielgud (in an American television version), Michael Redgrave (in the 1951 film, whose ludicrous ending is retained here), Nigel Stock (in the fine 1976 King's Head stage production). The moment when Finney's face flushes with emotion, as the light of a generous deed floods into his pinched world, almost redeems the rest of the film.

And yet I also feel Finney is badly miscast. Think of Finney - of his fondness for wine, women and race-horses - and you think of a bon viveur, rather than a corpse. Finney's voice lacks the correct pedantic whine - it is important that he should be a character who boys like to impersonate - and he seems too posed in his stiffness. When we watch him overseeing his class, he does not have a schoolmaster's rigidity, borne of study and supervising, but the coiled stillness of a heroic actor. He is still outstandingly attractive, a magnificent physical specimen - a real problem since Crocker-Harris is supposed to have failed his wife in physical love.

To know that the part was written for Gielgud is to realise how wrong Finney is. They are both great actors, but as different as air and earth.

Matters aren't helped by casting Greta Scacchi as Crocker-Harris's wife.

Scacchi gives the right startling venom to the part, but try as she and the make-up department may, there is nothing faded about her beauty. This should be a woman losing her man and her charms, who will do anything to hang on.

She is reaching the beginning of middle age and the end of pride.

To list the countless other absurdities in casting, direction and mise-en-scene which turn the creepy solemnity of an English public school into a raucous garden party (and the play's suave diplomat of a headmaster into Michael Gambon's cringing buffoon) would be to invite accusations of Crocker-Harris-style pedantry. Suffice it to say that the film-makers have no feel for the world they are depicting or the play they are adapting. They will argue that the play needed bringing up to date and opening out. But it has survived up to now, and has recently flourished in performance. The Browning Version is not only a very bad film, it desecrates a considerable work of art.

A world away is Warner Brothers' 1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream (U).

Respectful of the text, exquisitely designed and lustily played, it is a model Shakespeare adaptation. Directed with misty, expressionist verve by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, this is a Dream that is best in its glittery, gossamer fairyland of cloud-scraping trees and limpid pools. Here Mickey Rooney's Puck awakes on a bed of damp leaves, rubbing his eyes and hammering his fists against a tree trunk. And James Cagney's Bottom asses about with fiery, madcap energy. Only the pairs of lovers from the court seem to have missed the magic fairy-dust, though Olivia de Havilland's Hermia enchants. There are problems of pacing, too, but they are tiny set against the movie's virtues. In a gleaming new print, it makes a worthy centrepiece to an imaginatively programmed season of 'Shakespeare on Film', spanning 1908 to 1994, which runs at the Barbican Centre until 17 November.

The rest of the week's releases are a rum lot. Fear of a Black Hat (15) is a mock rap documentary (dubbed 'This is Spinal Rap') with glints of wit amid the obscenity. Major League II (15) has long baseball sequences which are worth sitting through for the spiralling gags and tightening, last-to-first plot. In Rapa Nui (12), Jason Scott Lee and others go on a cross-country expedition in 17th-century Easter Island, in a quest to be first to return some precious birds' eggs to the tribal leaders. They compete in little more than G-strings - a kind of egg-and-moon race.

Cinema details: Review, page 82.

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