Anyone expecting a gently uplifting weepy along the lines of perennial classroom favourite Goodbye, Mr Chips is likely to be disappointed by Anthony Asquith's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's 1948 play. But then disappointment - along with self-recrimination, domestic discord and a very English strain of unspoken resentment - are the subjects of this sombre drama about a well-meaning but misguided public school master destroyed by his own sense of personal and professional failure.
Andrew 'The Crock' Crocker-Harris (Redgrave) has taught classics at the same school for 18 years, where his pupils regard him with a mixture of pity, dread and disdain. "He's just dead," is one boy's cheerful assessment of the emotional abyss that lurks beneath The Crock's crusty demeanour. "He can't feel anything at all."
Crocker's wife is the bitterly resentful and grimly manipulative Millie (Kent), who is having an affair with another teacher, Hunter (Patrick), and whose needling, nagging and reproachful negativity have eaten away at her husband's soul. Now their relationship is conducted through gritted teeth, and when Crocker has to retire due to a heart condition, the war of attrition between husband and wife moves into a cruel new phase. It's a personal crisis that forces The Crock to confront his unrealised dreams, his lost ambition, his loveless marriage and his betrayal of the one thing for which he once had a passion: teaching Aeschylus' play 'Agamemnon', Robert Browning's translation of which provides the film with its title.
The Browning Version was the seventh collaboration between prime minister's son Asquith and the playwright Rattigan. In the 1940s and 1950s the pair helped define a polished strain of English drama where domestic propriety among the middle classes concealed a hotbed of unarticulated desires. That's certainly the case here. The setting may be a privileged seat of learning where boys with velvety vowels pore over their Aeschylus, but behind every stretched smile there's a hidden agenda, and though The Crock strikes fear into the hearts of his pupils, he's also a silent victim.
For Michael Redgrave, it's a skilfully understated performance. Thin-lipped, pale-eyed and burning with hurt when Crocker is described as the "Himmler of the lower fifth", the slow process of his coming to terms with failure is poignantly portrayed, and with the exception of the soft-hearted finale, Asquith's unobtrusive direction keeps excessive sentiment at bay.
It's a copy of Browning's 'Agamemnon' given to Crocker by his pupil Taplow (Smith) that reminds the teacher of his youthful love of literature and triggers his rehabilitation. There may be an element of schoolboy fantasy about Crocker's final confession of failure to the entire assembled school, but his subsequent redemption is no less than the character deserves.
The Browning Version is about the incompatibility of two kinds of love: the high-minded, idealised version espoused by Crocker, and the desperate desire for status, security and sex demonstrated by his wife. ("Usually a subject for farce," says Crocker, in a knowing little aside planted by Rattigan.)
Crocker himself is cast in various shades of grey, but Rattigan is a little too enthusiastic in making Millie the villain of the piece. While Hunter, whose affair with his colleague's wife is marked by shallow convenience, redeems himself with a sudden display of decency towards The Crock, Millie just keeps on grinding the knife into her husband's back, for which she's peremptorily punished by Rattigan.
In 1994 Mike Figgis adapted the same story for the screen, there with Albert Finney taking the lead. That second version suffered from a certain dourness of tone and never quite escaped the story's theatrical roots (though Rattigan updated his play significantly before putting it before the camera). Asquith's film is pleasantly spry, and though the period details date it, its analysis of repression and resentment rarely feels dishonest.