Goodbye, Mr. Chips (2002), Diary of a Country Priest (1950) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Video/DVD Picks
by Steven Greydanus | Source:
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (2002)

Not a remake of the 1939 classic but a new adaptation of James Hilton's sentimental novella, Masterpiece Theater's engrossing Goodbye Mr. Chips couldn't be more different from the 1939 film-and that's all to the good.

Where the earlier film idealized Hilton's already sentimental portrait of life at a traditional English boys' prep school, this version is more faithful to the book and to the real world.

Still a celebration of Brookfield's heritage and dedication to old-fashioned values and classical education, this film shows Chipping's struggles with the less attractive side of traditional boarding-school life-bullying, class-based snobbery, "fagging" (forcing younger pupils to serve older ones).

Chipping's transition from an inexperienced newcomer who easily loses control of a classroom to an authoritative master is better developed. We see the slow stages and small victories by which he wins the students' respect and grows in confidence, and specifically how Mrs. Chipping, when she arrives, impacts his professional and personal life. The difficulties posed by modernizing trends and pressures, coupled with unsympathetic administrators, also get more attention.

Martin Clunes's Chipping has virtually nothing in common with that of the first film-nor does his courtship of Kathy. His story is still endearing, though, and a warm-hearted tribute to dedicated teachers.

Content advisory: Some depictions of schoolboy violence and brief war menace.

Diary of a Country Priest (1950)

Now on DVD, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest is one of the most deeply Catholic films I've ever seen. Faithfully reflecting its source material, Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos's fictional autobiography of a soul, Diary profoundly contemplates the spiritual meaning of suffering and persecution, conversion and incorrigibility, and the dark night of the soul with a rigor and insight evocative of Augustine's Confessions or Thérèse's Story of a Soul.

The story is simple. A sensitive, frail young priest (Claude Laylu) arrives in a rural parish in spiritual decline. Vulnerable in his inexperience, he meets with indifference, polite toleration, even open mockery.

Amid constant failure and rejection, he has one striking victory: a spiritual exchange with a bitter countess recalling the dialogues of The Brothers Karamazov or the debate with Count Smokrev in Michael O'Brian's Father Elijah. Yet even his failures, dryness, and persecutions he accepts with submissiveness, turning them into a kind of victory, a grace.

Laylu, a devout Catholic with no previous acting experience, reportedly spent months living with young priests to absorb their mannerisms, and rigorously fasted to achieve his character's wan look. Yet it was only on seeing the finished film that Laylu realized he had played a saint.

Content advisory: Various manifestations of sin including an implied affair, possible suicide, and a malicious poisoning. Teens and up. In French with subtitles.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Recently released on DVD, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the original inspirational-teacher story, and a beloved valentine to classical education, tradition, and the English public boarding schools of a bygone era.

Based on James Hilton's novella, the film is essentially a character study spanning sixty years of a man's life. Its chief asset is Robert Donat's celebrated, Oscar-winning performance as Charles Chipping, a bookish classics professor who makes an inauspicious debut at the hallowed halls of Brookfield School for Boys but eventually finds his feet, ultimately becoming something of an institution at the school.

Donat not only ages convincingly from young adulthood into doddering old age, he persuasively synthesizes the various stages of the character's life, from diffident, humorless newcomer to endearingly eccentric absent-minded professor, into a well-integrated total portrait. Greer Garson, making her feature-film debut, is delightful as Katherine Bridges, the self-possessed young woman who makes a new man of Chipping and gives him a new name, Mr. Chips, to boot.

If the film has a fault, it's the relative lack of conflict in its leisurely running time as it follows its protagonist through love and tragedy, generations of schoolboys, war, changes at the school, old age and retirement, and crowning recognition. As a celebration of the impact a dedicated teacher can have, though, this sentimental classic deserves its reputation.

Content advisory: Nothing objectionable.

Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register.

To read more of his movie reviews please visit his website at DecentFilms.com.

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