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LEARNING CURVE

A fine paradox has risen in the Mother Country: Some of the most expressive British films now portray characters who are notably inexpressive, buttoned up and repressed.

Last year, Anthony Hopkins's stoic butler in The Remains of the Day, paralyzed by his devotion to Stiff Upper Lip, won hearts and minds all over moviedom. This year, Albert Finney has abruptly changed gears to play the role of a burned-out classics professor who's quietly come to realize that his young wife is cheating on him and that his students will be glad to see him go. While he struggles to maintain dignity, failure and loss cloak him like a bleak fog.

This is, of course, the new version of The Browning Version. Terence Rattigan's one-act play was first filmed in 1951, with Michael Redgrave in the lead and Anthony Asquith behind the camera, and it holds up beautifully today. The current director, Mike Figgis, and the new writer, Ronald Harwood, have transplanted the play to 1994, but they wisely decided to meddle only slightly with Rattigan's original screenplay: Finney's heartbreaking performance--all nuance and subtlety--reinvigorates the story on its own. It is difficult to remember a more effective remake.

From Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in which he was a belligerent young rebel of the slums, to Under the Volcano, where he shone as Malcolm Lowry's tragic drunkard, Finney has been the soul of British screen drama. But until now he's played mostly loudmouth blokes. Here, he shows us his range: By necessity, Finney's emotion is all etched in his broad face and in the silent gestures of defeat.

For twenty years Andrew Crocker-Harris has tried to instill his love of classic literature in his students at an exclusive boys' school. But for his rigid, disciplinarian ways, he's also been dubbed "the Hitler of the Lower Fifth." Even the fussy headmaster (Michael Gambon) can't wait to push him out on the pretext of poor health. In the course of Andrew's final days in this sunlit, vine-covered hell, we see all the remaining energy and passion draining out of him. The cruel wife (Greta Scacchi), whose needs have not been met, openly ridicules him. The boys snicker behind his back. Colleagues heap little indignities upon him. He endures in silence, a creature of his class and his tradition.

Why should we care? Because Finney also shows us the all-but-vanished idealist in the man, the classicist whose life has become a classic tragedy, who must summon the strength to survive. Figgis (Internal Affairs, Mr. Jones) has gotten good supporting performances from Matthew Modine as a cocky young American science teacher, fourteen-year-old Ben Silverstone as a boy whose lone act of kindness rekindles Andrew's hope, and Scacchi, a steaming vixen in silk.

But this is Finney's film, and he has given Rattigan's well-made play a deserved new shot of life. If you cherish great acting, have a look.

 
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