| Tender without being melodramatic, intense without being tawdry, David Lean’s Brief Encounter tells the story of a doomed romance between a man and woman who are married to other people but hopelessly in love with each other. Yet, they are so torn by the guilt of deceiving their spouses that they never share physical contact outside of kissing, and eventually they call off their relationship because they realize it will hurt too many people.|
For some modern viewers, it will be hard not to see the restriction of physical intimacy between them as a sign of the times in which the film was made and the fact that they end their illicit affair and return to their respective spouses as a conservative, moralistic affirmation of the necessity of marital fidelity. After all, Brief Encounter was released in 1945, a time when film censor boards did not look kindly on stories that treated adultery in a sympathetic light. While this certainly had something to do with how the narrative was formed, there is much more to it.
The screenplay by Noel Coward, based on his one-act play Still Life, is about passion and pain and how those two emotions are closely linked. The couple in love, a suburban housewife named Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and a doctor named Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), give themselves over to their overwhelming feelings for each other, but never entirely. The film is told completely from Laura’s point of view; in fact, her voice-over narration actually takes the form of a confession to her husband (Cyril Raymond) that takes place in her mind the night she ends her relationship with Alec.
The sadness in her voice and her longing to explain to her husband what has happened over the past month shows in no uncertain terms that she still loves him. This is not a film that attempts to explain away or justify her affair by making her husband into an abusive lout or a miserable dullard. Instead, it takes the more complex route, suggesting that a woman can love two men in completely different ways. Nothing drives her into Alec’s arms outside of an inexplicable passion that she could neither predict nor control. “I’m an ordinary woman,” she says at one point. “I didn’t know such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”
The film takes place in England just before World War II, and it opens with a painful scene in which Laura and Alec are saying their final good-bye to each other at the train station where they first met. At this point, we have not seen any of their relationship, but the sad looks on their faces let us know exactly what is happening. At that inopportune moment, one of Laura’s gossipy, chatterbox friends comes in and, unaware of the situation, sits down with them and starts rambling on about nothing. The power and resonance of the film is immediately evident in that we can feel Laura and Alec’s longing for each other and frustration that their last moments together have been ruined by this intrusion, even though we have not been formally introduced to either character yet (a narrative structure that would be borrowed wholesale 70 years later by Phyllis Nagy for her adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s period lesbian romance Carol).
In flashback, Laura narrates the circumstances under which she and Alec met and eventually fell in love. In some ways, their romance is utterly mundane, consisting mostly of eating lunch together, going to the cinema, taking drives out in the country, stealing kisses in the dark tunnels between landing platforms while the trains rumble overhead. The everyday details coalesce into a stark sense of realism—physical, social, and emotion—that makes their romance that much more affecting.
The director, David Lean, who would go on to large, widescreen epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), shows a master’s sense of how to catch the small, but crucial details. Nothing feels out of place or exaggerated, and he holds each scene for just the right amount of time. When Laura and Alec finally profess their love for each other, he doesn’t push the scene and force it into high-pitched melodrama. Lean is aided greatly by two superb performances by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, both of whom have exceptionally expressive faces. The gradual development of their affair is so natural and unforced that it is never clear exactly when it moves from friendly companionship to romance. It just happens, and when the characters realize it, we don’t doubt it for a second. At that point, the story has taken control, and the fact that we know it ends in heartbreak adds an extra layer of poignancy to everything they do.
Brief Encounter is often classified as a “woman’s picture,” a dominant genre of the 1940s and ’50s. From a narrative perspective, the film certainly identifies most strongly with the woman; the fact that we never seen Alec’s wife or homelife is indicative of how unwavering the film’s point of view is. Yet, Brief Encounter transcends such labels in the way it deals with emotions that cut across gender lines. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship that was too complicated and painful to continue will immediately identify with what happens to Laura and Alec. Their decision to call off the affair is not a simplistic paean to the overriding necessity of maintaining a marriage or a sign of weakness that they cannot handle the social stigma of adultery. Rather, it is a sad, but truthful affirmation of the complexities of life and the fact that not all romances, no matter how intensely felt or seemingly perfect, are meant to be.
Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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