Michael Redgrave did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning Cannes, for portraying Andrew Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version.
Michael Redgrave is an actor who I have appreciated his past work to be sure, though those were often in smaller roles, or as co-leads. Redgrave is the central figure to this film, and I won't attempt to obscure my feelings this is work is rather extraordinary. The film opens with his character, Crocker-Harris being introduced by the school headmaster as well as through the interactions of a few school students. It is far more common for films with a teacher at the focal point to be more broadly inspirational, not unlike Goodbye Mr. Chips which is referenced in this film. This film seems to purposefully subvert that trope. Both the head master and the students paint Crocker-Harris as an unlikable professor and almost view him as a dictatorial figure, with his first appearance sitting silently seemingly being the figure he is described as. This is a rather interesting character study from the outset as this sort of character is more often found as a side character, just a one note antagonist setup to be flustered when our free spirit protagonist wins the day. This film offers a fascinating alternative perspective to such a character, even though we are technically introduced to him a way in which we observe him through the limited lens that everyone else seems to.
Michael Redgrave's first speaking scene is found when we watch Crocker-Harris's replacement come to observe the man's methods in action. Although we are shown a loud uproarious classroom next door we are told such things do not occur in Crocker-Harris's classroom. Redgrave is downright brilliant as he reveals his crafting of this particular professor. It would not be good enough to simply be the posh stuck up gentleman, that wouldn't be correct, Redgrave instead creates something quite unique in his realization of the man. The vocal choice that Redgrave takes is a stroke of genius. He inflicts himself with a higher pitched voice. It is of course very proper yet dull, perfect for long recitations of foreign languages, also perfect for an imitation, as Crocker-Harris's students so often indulge. There is something particularly intelligent Redgrave does with this voice, which I will get to a bit more down below. Redgrave furthers his creation of Crocker-Harris as the perfect dusty old professor with his physical presence. There is an utter rigidity he brings to his performance as he takes his seat at the head of classroom, keeping this very particular gaze, and very specific tightness in place almost as a statue representing a teacher.
We are then allowed to see Crocker-Harris in action, and Redgrave is wholly convincing in being the master of his classroom. He does not do this by raising his voice, yet there is this cold incisiveness that has a strange power to it. There is an intensity within it which is absolutely believable in the way it controls the classroom. As he distributes his punishment in addition to stating the class's failures on their work it absolutely pierces through in the way Redgrave in such a matter of fact fashion carries the old crock. Redgrave shows us a man who does rule, not with an iron fist, rather an iron tongue and resolve of sorts which is unflinching. In this view you'd never second guess this man in his space of command, even if it appears to make the majority of his students so miserable. The whole idea of the image of the man, as stated by the students, is there in Redgrave's work. He is indeed a character though a character in terms of how the student's view of him. There is something even slightly comical about this, not that Crocker-Harris is being funny exactly, rather he's humorous in the way the student's see him. That is not all there is to Crocker-Harris as the film continues.
We are still given technically the limited view of him as one of the students, Taplow, comes for an additional lesson, much to his dismay, as does Crocker-Harris's fellow professor Frank Hunter under the pretense of a friendly visit, though in fact there to continue on his affair with Crocker-Harris's wife Millie. Redgrave shows Crocker-Harris ease up a bit, though not entirely, as he shows up for the additional lesson at first, suggesting just a hint of less prickly figure, though still rather prickly. Redgrave goes on as the tired old teacher until Taplow mentions translating "Agamemnon" from Greek properly, suggesting a real enthusiasm for the material. Redgrave is fantastic in this moment as he still portrays such reservation in the conversation, as though Crocker-Harris is carefully trying to understand whether or not Taplow is being genuine. Redgrave eventually reveals just a dim bit of passion that reveal itself from beneath his skin, quietly explaining his own interest in the work by mentioning his own attempt at translating it. After the lesson Taplow leaves though and we are left with Crocker-Harris and his personal life.
Now in terms of Redgrave's performance we also see a bit of loss in his vocal work in that his high pitched voice though retained, is now entirely natural sounding where in class it seemed just ever so slightly put on. Redgrave is also terrific in creating such anti-chemistry with Jean Kent as Millie, as they eat together in such complete detachment from one another. If there ever was love between them, it is absolutely gone. Redgrave's interactions though aren't those with a stranger though, but rather an enemy who has done him so much wrong he can barely spare her a look in the eye. They later on go to walk about the academy as a cricket game is going along, and we soon learn why this is the case. Crocker-Harris first goes to speak with the head master who informs Crocker-Harris that he not only will not receive his pension, but he is also asked that at his retirement ceremony that he speak before a younger teacher despite it being entirely against protocol. Redgrave's work is so remarkable in the way he internalizes Crocker-Harris is discontent so effectively in the moment, while just barely whispering out his protests that the head master easily waves away. Redgrave gives us a man so defeated by life, and makes the humanity within it so honest, that it is actually a bit painful to witness.
Of course his treatment by the head master is nothing compared to the way his wife brow beats him incessantly for his failures. Redgrave again makes you feel the pain, while maintaining the man's posture and stature as to what suits his position. The measure of suffering is deeply felt in Redgrave's performance, but it goes further in that you see the years of it in the man. He does not even speak against his wife treatment, though in his eyes he shows it hurts him no less, as he presents Crocker-Harris's terrible existence in such vivid detail. The idea of this is only grown as he explains his history as a professor to his successor, which is a tale defeat. In the scene though Crocker-Harris describes his intentional playing up of certain mannerisms to try to entertain the boys originally, which completely matches that somewhat heightened voice and physical performance we saw in his early scenes. The tale is more than just a revelation, and Redgrave instead expresses a confession. A striking confession of the anguish in a man who is admitting to his own loss of will to do what he believed to have been a noble cause.
There is just a bit of hope given to Crocker-Harris, to give his years some meaning when Taplow later returns to give him the titular Browning version of "Agamemnon". Redgrave give such poignancy to the moment as he allows a bit more of that old passion to reveal itself in the way he so beautifully breaks down in just a moment of joy from the gift. Unfortunately his wife refuses to grant any such happiness to Crocker-Harris as she proclaims that Taplow as merely mocking him with the gift, which is so hurtful that even the Hunter, the man having an affair with his wife, is horrified by it. Redgrave though is heart wrenching as he brings Crocker-Harris to almost the end, as you can feel the emotion all pent up and on the edge of the man with every tense word and irritated movement. Redgrave depicts the tremendous effort in Crocker-Harris as he's trying to keep himself proper, even while so clearly falling apart inside. He is especially heartbreaking when he reveals to Hunter that he's always known about the affair, since his wife told him. Redgrave makes the moment almost unbearable because he shows the man who has essentially accepted his pain as he reveals to Hunter, his wife's inability to love him. Redgrave is devastating since there is this sense of warmth he brings to the words, but a warmth lost long ago to the past. It isn't the end of Crocker-Harris though as Hunter tirelessly attempts to get him to stand up for himself, basically insisting he is not as useful as the way his wife treats him. Redgrave renders his understanding of this so eloquently and believable in his quiet reactions. Redgrave calls upon something within his work in the discontent to carefully and convincingly to create a change in Crocker-Harris. Redgrave does not compromise the character though, as when he dismisses his wife Redgrave's whole performance earns this suggesting it has been a long thing coming to begin with. Crocker-Harris's turn around does not end there though as in the farewell ceremony he insists on speaking second, as is his right to do so. Redgrave is downright amazing in the scene as he begins in Crocker-Harris's stilted professor manner at first, before breaking out to essentially giving an anti-inspirational speech. In that he admits his failures to all his students, and Redgrave finally wholly reveals the old passions of the man in this speech. It is a truly cathartic moment, and Redgrave manages to make inspiring in its own way. As now Redgrave, even when admitting defeat, he shows that Croker-Harris is no longer defeated as a man. I honestly could go on and on in discussing the greatness of this performance. I absolutely loved this performance not a second is wasted in Redgrave's outstanding work. He so effortlessly crafts this portrait of this distinct figure in such humanizing and powerful detail.