Monday, July 25, 2005

The candy espionage that inspired Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I saw Batman Begins last week, and was blown away. I was cautiously optimistic, hoping it might be an enjoyable summer blockbuster, but was shocked by how much I loved it. It's not a perfect film, but overall really captures the essence of the character; the sets are dark, and the subject matter is darker. A cautionary tale about how fear can destroy a society seems fitting for our time. And Michael Caine as Alfred is perfect casting. And Katie Holmes compensates for her miscasting enough to not ruin the film. I was really impressed.

In a film viewing more relevant to my recent life, I received the DVD of The Browning Version in the mail a little while ago. I'd seen it on TV years ago, and was looking forward, in the midst of summer school, to watching the pathetic tale of a retiring classics professor, who looks back on his life and realizes he wasted his life. Andrew Crocker-Harris, known as "the Crock" when his students are in a good mood, or "Himmler of the Lower Fifth" when they (or the headmaster, for that matter) aren't in such high spirits, has a reputation of terrorizing his pupils, as he drills them in rote translations that suck the joy out of the ancient texts he so reveres. Forced to retire due to illness, he is struck by a realization of how badly he's failed as a teacher, which, along with a sham marriage and the unexpected kindness of a student, overwhelms him. Every review seems to describe it as the anti-Goodbye, Mr. Chips (which is itself mentioned, sarcastically, in the movie), and it seems an apt description. The Crock doesn't get redemption at the end, but he gets self-realization, which is something, I suppose. The film lived up to my memories of it, and Michael Redgrave is fantastic as Crocker-Harris. The film builds to a climax in his retirement speech, a powerful moment, yet it is merely a reflection of the powerful emotions he unleashes throughout the film in smaller touches: reacting cruelly to a student's polite laughter at a joke (is he too cold to recognize the gesture as a courtesy, or his he angered at being the recipient of a young boy's pity?), breaking down after receiving another kindness from a student, or taking in the news of his nickname of "Himmler" (in a post-war Britain where the name certain stung more than we might appreciate). The film is old-fashioned, perhaps, and perhaps feels a bit stage-bound, but the minimalist direction is used masterfully (as someone remarks on the DVD extras, you can really appreciate the direction when you think of how various directors have ruined great plays). And as the number of films that really express the subject of failure well is fairly slim, I am very thankful to now have this film on DVD.

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