Back to the old school
As the latest move in a checkered career, Greta Scacchi plays an unfaithful wife in an updating of The Browning Version. She talks to Alan Morrison.
With her startlingly clear blue eyes and unblemished blonde beauty. Greta Scacchi isn't quite your typical English leading lady. Even when she does ﬁnd herself in the midst ofa typically British setting — the Merchant-Ivory colonial world of Heat And Dust or. most recently. the stuffy public school atmosphere of The Browning Version — she is usually placed at odds to her surroundings. It was her sexually charged performance as a woman causing scandal in 1920s lndia in Heat/ind Dust that brought her to light in 1983. More than a decade later. in Mike Figgis's updating of Terence Rattigan's stageplay The Browning Version. she plays the wife of an authoritarian classics teacher who desperately tries to bring a spark back into her life by embarking on an affair with a visiting American.
‘Because it’s set in a man’s world, a microcosm of society where all the pretences and facades are emphasised, it’s important for his career that their marriage has a stable image.’
Born 34 years ago in Milan to an Italian father and English mother. Scacchi was educated partly in Australia before taking to the stage at the Bristol Old Vic. Perhaps it is this international background that has led her to a more geographically diverse career than her peers. making ﬁlms in Germany (Second Sight). ltaly (Good Morning Babylon. Three Sisters. The Woman In The Moon) and Australia (The Coca- Cola Kid. Turtle Beach), as well as the US (Presumed Innocent. Shattered. The Player) and Britain (Defence Of The Realm).
The Browning Version was ﬁrst staged at London’s Phoenix Theatre in 1948. with Eric Portman in the to-die-for role of Andrew Crocker-Harris. a man greatly disliked by his pupils. but who maintains a personal dignity while coping with his own failings and the inﬁdelity of his wife. However. a single act of kindness — a student's farewell gift of Robert Browning‘s translation of the Agamemnon by Aeschylus — opens a well of emotions within him and persuades him that perhaps his life's work has not been in vain.
The play has been ﬁlmed previously. in 1951 by Anthony Asquith. starring Michael Redgrave. but its depiction of English emotional repression is timeless as well as commercially astute — coming on the back of Remains Of The Day. S/I(1d()lt‘/(lll(13. et al. In the lead part. Albert Finney gives a magniﬁcent. ﬁnely
textured performance which builds layer upon layer I of mannerisms. accumulated over the years by
Crocker-Harris as a means of defence. without losing ; touch of the human being at the core — a great scholar who is deeply disillusioned by his inability to share his love of classical literature with others.
Scacchi‘s role of Laura has been extended from the
4 stage original. and it is to her credit that she brings : some audience sympathy to a character who could so i easily be seen as a callous, vindictive bitch. While the school is portrayed as a closed community with its own old-fashioned rules and deﬁnitions. each of the protagonists also exists within his or her own isolated world. Laura is an equally sad ﬁgure. just as repressed as her husband. Many years ago. she sacriﬁced everything for his career. but when love ﬁickered out and any lingering feelings of respect 3 were lost. she found herself trapped in a strictly male-dominated environment. acting out the role of doting wife at social functions. Abandoned by her lover (Matthew Modine). she takes out her anger and sense of betrayal on the easiest target — her husband.
‘Because it's set in a man‘s world. a microcosm of society where all the pretences and facades are emphasised, it‘s important for his career that their marriage has a stable image.’ notes Scacchi. ‘Not just for the bureaucracy of the school, but for the boys who. nowadays in boarding schools. are often there because their parents are divorced. and so the wives ofthe teachers become matemal ﬁgures. I think. even more in modem times. we should admire the fact that she has stood by her husband.‘
in the course of our conversation. the actress hints that neither she nor director Figgis are entirely happy with the ﬁnished ﬁlm or with the efforts of its producer Ridley Scott. Scacchi details one passionate scene between her and Modine that softens the harder
The Browning Version: ‘English emotional repression is timeless’
edges ofher character. but which was forcibly left on
the cutting room floor. As we talk on. other
grievances are aired. and her frustration with the performer‘s lack ofcontrol over the final product
comes to the fore. She tells how. in .S‘luittered. her
stand-out scene. a ﬁve-minute gauntlet ofemotions and the very reason she took on the ﬁlm. was snipped in its entirin due to semi-informed test screening responses. She expresses her annoyance at director
; Andrew Birkin for admitting at a late date that his heart wasn’t in Salt ()n Our Skin (unreleased in the
UK) and that he did it only to secure funding for The Cement Garden. She talks with disgust of how
. Gillian Armstrong‘s Fires Within (again unreleased
here) was sabotaged by a studio who ﬁred the director’s regular learn. But these artistic horror
‘ stories are peppered with moments of black humour.
‘It is to her credit that she brings some audience sympathy to a character who could so easily be seen as a callous, vindictive bitch.’
‘l couldn‘t believe. when i went over to do I’resroned Innocent, all the red carpet screening.‘ she says. open-eyed. ‘All around. there are these ﬁfteen energetic young kids. assistants on the ﬁlm. all saying. “()h. Greta. you're so nice. isn't she great? i really love Greta?". like they‘re paid to boost your ego. They pamper you like an invalid. and you’re
wheeled in to do your work. and they‘re all ready for
you to be a complete monster. Because the more ofa monster you are. the greater your bravura as an actor.‘
The Browning Version opens on Friday 28 October.
16 The List 21 October—3 November I994