“This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.”
Before Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai made his name synonymous with sprawling, big-budget epics, David Lean directed much smaller, more intimate films, often romances or literary adaptations. Brief Encounter happens to be both: a tragic love story adapted from a play by Lean’s friend and collaborator, Noël Coward.
Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is an ordinary wife and mother. She is content with her quiet, some would say boring, life: keeping house, raising two children, and going to town by train every Thursday to do the shopping. All of that changes one Thursday evening when she meets a kindly stranger, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in the tea room at the train station. Suddenly, she finds herself caught in between her devotion to her husband and family and her passionate love for Alec.
In trying to find the right words to describe the experience of this film, I keep coming back to over and over to the word “emotional.” Brief Encounter makes you feel every emotion, and feel them perhaps more deeply than many other films do. Though immersed in the dreary mundanity of a small town in Britain, the sounds and images of Brief Encounter transform the world of the film, suffusing it with passion.
Many viewers justly laud the film’s haunting score, selected from the works of Sergei Rachmaninov. Perhaps just as effective for getting viewers into the film’s frame of mind is the shadowy, expressionistic style of cinematography that Lean achieves, with the help of DP Robert Krasker. Under their direction, Milford Junction, where much of the film takes place, becomes dark and secretive, or harsh with sudden light. It hides but it also reveals. It provides a refuge for the two lovers, though the precariousness of their situation remains.
On top of this, we have the performance of Celia Johnson, who possessed one of the most expressive faces in the history of cinema. A stage actress by training, Johnson’s film performances were few but magnetic. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, we can see her falling in love ever so slowly with Alec as they chit-chat about his work in the tea room. This, in my opinion, is one of the great romantic scenes of all time.
Trevor Howard as well gives an admirable performance as Alec, though his character appears to be slightly underwritten. The entire film is told from the point of view of Laura as she sits in her living room, imagining herself telling the story to her kind and unsuspecting husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). On the one hand, this device allows the film to give Laura a rich inner life, making her far more complex than many a romantic movie heroine of the day. On the other hand, such a device necessarily flattens the perspective of every other character. Alec seems to suffer especially, with one fellow film blogger suggesting that if Brief Encounter‘s female lead had been as underdeveloped as the male lead, the film would be reviled today instead of being celebrated.
Combined with this is Coward’s evident contempt for the lower classes, shown in the comparison he makes throughout the film between Laura and Alec and the tea room owner Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and her stationmaster boyfriend Albert (Stanley Holloway). Myrtle left her abusive husband to go into business for herself, and she and Alfred are apparently now living together. The script suggests that Laura and Alec’s affair would be wrong not simply on moral grounds but because such things are beneath their dignity as respectable members of the middle class.
Beyond these two unfortunate points, I find the writing in Brief Encounter to be one of its best features: a simple but moving story, turning a penetrating eye to the relationships of the characters.
“Thank you for coming back to me.”
Perhaps the most poignant scene of the entire film comes at the very end. Laura, sitting in her living room after parting from Alec forever that day, has just finished telling the story in her mind. Her husband Fred, looking up from his crossword puzzle, finally begins to notice that something is wrong. The jovial, empty face he wore throughout most of the film vanishes, replaced by a look of unknowing but genuine concern. He kneels down by Laura’s chair, and says
“Whatever your dream was, it wasn’t a very happy one, was it?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Yes, Fred, you always have.
Fred: “You’ve been a long way away.”
Fred: “Thank you for coming back to me.”
Laura bursts into tears and buries her face in Fred’s shoulder. He embraces her, kisses her softly, and we close.
To me, this is one of the best and most powerful scenes in film. Up until this point, Fred wasn’t so much a character as he was an idea, a vague threat to Laura and Alec’s happiness, a liability to take into account and nothing more. With this nine-line exchange, that oblivious, crossword-solving plot device becomes a flesh-and-blood human being, with emotions and a heart as real as Laura’s or Alec’s. In this moment, the reality of what that affair could have meant and how many lives it could ruin comes down with full force.
This, the focus on human beings and the delicacy of their relationships, is why Brief Encounter has stood the test of time. Today, the main premise of the film seems to many audiences, and even some critics, almost silly: if they’re so in love, why don’t they leave their spouses so they can be together? Why do they feel so guilty for being with the person who truly makes them happy? This scene answers all of those questions: because it isn’t just about them. There are other people, other lives, other hearts mixed into this too. Noël Coward’s story captures that beautifully, and Lean’s vivid, sensitive direction brings it to life.
Director: David Lean
Producer: Noël Coward
Production Company: Cineguild
Stars: Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, Joyce Carey as Myrtle Bagot, Stanley Holloway as Albert Godby, Cyril Raymond as Fred Jesson
Writers: Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame, and David Lean
Based on: Still Life by Noël Coward
Score by: Sergei Rachmaninov
Runtime: 1 hour and 26 minutes
Color?: Black and white