British director David Lean is most famous as a maker of titanic Hollywood epics, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago, and of course Lawrence of Arabia. But before Columbia Pictures came calling, Lean typically helmed British films of a much more modest scale, including a couple of stellar adaptions of Charles Dickens novels. Prior to Oliver Twist and T.E. Lawrence capturing his attention, Lean’s bread and butter was making films based on the works of British playwright, actor, and wit Noël Coward. The last of his Coward adaptations, Brief Encounter (1945) is generally considered to be the high point of Lean’s British film work before his talents were harnessed by American studios. The story of Brief Encounter is quite simple, a suburban housewife meets a suburban doctor while running errands in the city. Though both are already married and have children, they form an instant attraction and become tangled in a short-lived romance. Brief Encounter is an elegant study in desire and repression, passion and propriety; and ranks as one of few movie romances that dares to feel real in its emotions and realistic in its plotting. But it also remains strikingly cinematic, transforming a dingy train station into a realm of love and anguish. (86 min.)
J. – I’m a big fan of David Lean’s work, and it was nice to revisit one of his earlier pictures. Brief Encounter is frequently considered to be one of the best British films of all time, some argue that it is the best. I am not one of those people (much as I enjoy it), but I would argue that is the most British film I’ve ever seen. There is something so utterly British to have a film about a torrid affair that is largely full reserve, propriety, disappointment, and failure. The characters are unfailingly polite and so utterly unwilling to showcase their feelings — or at least they are through much of the early portions of the story. And while this understated approach runs a terrible risk of becoming dull or overly muted, I think it generally works here as the story slowly snowballs into a place when the characters nearly lose control — nearly. But while the film never gives itself wholly over to wild passion I think that enables it to really make the most out of the little moments of Laura and Alec’s adulterous relationship wherein the pair are allowed to connect just as they want. It also makes their despair and worry feel more real and grounded, rather than hysterical or broad. I’m not giving anything away by saying that their relationship doesn’t pan out — you know that after the first scene — but there is something strangely perfect about their failure that rings true, whereas so many romance films feel a bit hollow when the guy finally gets the girl (or vice versa). How about you, S., did you find the “Britishness” of the film to be stifling or complementary to the romance of the film?
S. – While the anxiety around proper behaviour edged toward becoming comical, the untempered earnestness of the two lovers was always apparent. I did believe that Laura and Alec were wild about each other, even though the contact between them was always brief and usually awkward. Certainly there were many loaded silences and the bittersweet knowledge that there was no acceptable way forward for them filtered into every scene. This lack of acceptance not only being imposed by the external pressures of society but very much fuelled by their personal beliefs around decency. Perhaps because most of the story was revealed as an internal narrative you were hyper-aware that Laura was thinking, reasoning and trying to rationalise a way through to a future with Alec, but rarely able to let herself go and live in the moment of this unexpected and overwhelming passion. That seemed quite realistic to me. Frequently the only pleasure she seemed to gain was the first moment of seeing Alec once again, the journey to him and much of the time at his side being more a torment than a gift. Having access to Laura’s inner life I found myself thinking about the rigid societal structures we expect model citizens to operate within. The expectation that people marry and start a family before they have really matured seems a path to misery for so many, and when you also disallow them to alter their circumstances it seems particularly cruel. From our conversations I gather the narrative style didn’t gel that well with you though, J.?
J. – Well, yes and no. I generally have trouble with voice-over narration in films, as I think it is often a lazy device to move stories along when the filmmakers are not clever enough to find a way to visually work their way through story points or exposition (there are exceptions, of course). So I wasn’t particularly taken with a number of moments in the first third or so of the film that rely strongly on the story being told in Laura’s head, but as the relationship between the lovers begins to gather steam and Laura’s inner monologue takes a back seat I think that the film becomes utterly compelling. That said, I appreciate that the inner monologue/flashback structure of the film does allow for some very important elements that otherwise would have been trickier to convey, particularly Laura’s relationship with her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond), who is working on a crossword puzzle as his wife replays the doomed affair in her head.
I’ll get back to that in a quick second but I wanted to first quickly address one thing that I think is relevant to the point I want to make about Fred. One of the things that I think is so wonderful about Brief Encounter is that Laura and Alec are such ordinary people. Actors Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are certainly not homely people, but they are also decidedly not glamorous — at least not in this movie. Johnson’s Laura is unfashionable and awkward, with protruding eyes and a bit of a lisp. Trevor Howard has looks that are a bit more matinee idol, but he lacks the dash and charisma of a Cary Grant or an Errol Flynn and he looks much older than his 32 years. And I think an important element that comes up again and again in this story is that this is a romance grounded in the real world and not an idealized or cinematic love. So when you see Laura sitting at home with Fred, this nondescript husband looks utterly right for a rather plain woman like Laura. Fred’s also clearly very affable and they live in a fine home; nothing is done to debase Laura’s husband in any way to justify her affair. So in that regard there is a measure of power to her narrating her own infidelity, as she is mulling it all over in the presence of a thoroughly decent man who has not made Laura unhappy so much as unwittingly denied her the chance to be truly happy. That’s killer stuff, but I just don’t think it plays out as strongly as the chronicling of the affair itself, which I think is wonderfully handled, particularly in those moments that find the adulterous couple bathed in shadows.
S. – Laura’s role as wife and mother within an ideal family situation, two bright kids (boy and girl), an attentive husband all neatly packaged up in a lovely home, is what makes this film so compelling to me. She has no reason to be unhappy, except the discovery that she has no agency to change her life. Nothing as simple as good guys versus bad guys here. Just the realisation that her small world, while pleasant is most respects, is really a cage from which she is not able to escape. The very fact that everything is so agreeable makes the situation impossible to extricate herself from without damaging the people who care about her and very possibly losing her self-respect.
The psychological exploration you are invited into is fully supported by the visuals in this film. It is beautifully shot. The ordinary often looks wonderful, including the two leads who, as you mentioned, J., are not glamorous stars. In particular the images composed around the train station, which represents the junction where so many people on different journeys intersect briefly before heading on their way. Laura and Alec lingered amidst all the bustle for a little while before accepting that they too were going to separate places.
J. – The film is beautifully shot and uses shadows in a manner that is quite different from the way they are typically handled in films, wherein they frequently represent some form of torment or menace. There are numerous scenes in this film that are brightly lit, and to be honest a bit plain in appearance, but these tend to be the actual dates that the pair go on. In most movies these would be the places for budding romance, but in Brief Encounter they usually are filled with subtle comedy or just outright disaster — the film even dips a toe into slapstick during a boating scene. No, it’s in the dark corners of the train station or underpasses where the two are most connected and most passionate. The shadows add to the illicit thrill the pair are experiencing and ultimately creates a feeling of romance that manages to be heightened because it is obscured by the darkness. But of course some of the traditional connotations of shadow and darkness can’t help but be placed upon the action by the audience, which is appropriate given that Laura and Alec’s relationship is doomed. As a result there is a wonderful tension in those moments that understandably haunts Laura as she tries to make sense of her feelings and predicament.
I mentioned in my opening salvo that you know the affair was doomed after the first scene of the film, and one of the interesting elements of the movie is how it circles around to bring you back to that opening scene at the end. How effective did you find that to be, S.? Personally, I loved it and pretty much made up for any misgivings I had about the extensive voice-over narration in the beginning of the movie.
S. – Running through the opening scene again at the close was a great move and very in keeping with the device that we are viewing the experience through Laura’s memory. Of course she would be haunted by those final desperate moments. On the initial viewing you can sense tension between Laura and Alec without any grasp on what it is they cannot discuss in front of the blabbermouth neighbour, who has clearly interrupted them. The reveal that you are seeing their final moments together is wrenching, painful and exquisite. In clumsy hands it could have been a rather cold departure, yet it is very powerful as the lovers end their union in front of an oblivious tearoom crowd. The surface restraint is countered by both the musical score that communicates Laura’s distress and the fury of the rushing trains that seem to acknowledge that some violence has been done. The result is deeply affecting and also immensely satisfying. When a director is able to captivate you with a simple story and tap into an empathy without resorting to shock tactics or hysterics you know you are in capable hands.
J. – I would say that the replay of that first scene actually is shocking, but in the best possible sense of the word. In the initial run-through you witness Laura’s distress at Alec’s final departure but it comes across through feigned faintness. It fits very neatly into the sense of propriety and reserve that the film maintains for much of its runtime, and so you don’t get a real sense of how deeply distraught she is. But on the second run through when you realize that she was actually a heartbeat away from ending it all in her despair, the amateur theatrics of the opening scene now seem positively heroic. The panic and anguish conveyed by Celia Johnson as the train rushes past her in that pivotal moment is devastating. But I love that the film doesn’t succumb to the despair and plunge into melodrama. Laura is a woman of quiet reserve, and the way she masters herself is equally parts impressive and heartbreaking. And that reserve is critical; I don’t think that scene would have had anywhere near the power it did if the lovers had been allowed to express their passion as they truly desired throughout the course of the film. The great tragedy of Brief Encounter is that Laura and Alec never even had the chance to find out precisely what they were losing when they separated forever.
On a completely separate note, this entry marks one year to the day since we started this blog and the 59th list film we have yammered about. We’ve had a great time with this experiment so far and though we’ve sometimes been a bit remiss in our updates we’re glad that we kept up a pace of better than one film per week. We offer our sincere thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read any of our posts and we look forward to continuing our journey through the Sight & Sound list in the weeks, months, and (presumably) years ahead. – S. & J.