Film

Romance With a Stiff Upper Lip in 'Brief Encounter'

More than 60 years on, Brief Encounter, pitting love against conventions, continues to break hearts.


Brief Encounter

Director: David Lean
Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1945
US DVD release date: 2016-04-26

Clipped accents on screen, buckets of tears in the audience: that’s been the general takeaway from Brief Encounter over the years. While David Lean’s 1945 romance, shot before World War II ended, is undeniably a classic -- at least inasmuch as it’s seeped into film, and particularly British culture -- it’s not quite as universally admired as other cinematic staples. Despite problems, though not in the areas commonly criticized, it’s still a very good film worthy of that classic tag.

Restraint is the key to Brief Encounter. It’s a romance played out in the mind more than anything physical, and it asks the audience to buy into that premise. Those that can’t may find a running time shy of 90-minutes to be too much. Those that can should prepare for heartbreak. Of course, context plays a big role in the burgeoning love affair between two married people; Celia Johnson’s bored housewife Laura, and Trevor Howard’s collected Doctor Alec. Meeting by chance in a railway station café, they begin a romance strongly forbidden in a time when divorce, never mind adultery, is heavily stigmatized.

From that chance encounter -- she has coal grit in her eye and he removes it -- they end up meeting regularly. Dates are spent out and about town, taking in movies or boating on the lake. It’s intimacy is through shared experience, not sex, something that has provoked comment over the years. But the very fact that they pull back from consummation is key to this rich and engaging film. Laura struggles to get past her guilt, forced away when it matters the most. She has a husband and two children, and she’s not meant to betray them. In different circumstances maybe, but not now.

Here’s where the clipped accents, the kind consigned to history and parody, come into effect. Every word is precise, every emotion carefully moderated, at least when they aren’t together. When they are, the restraint starts to go out the window, and real emotion shines through. Contrast between the dull straightjacket of daily life is made that much greater when they burst into laughter after Alec gets stuck standing in the lake, water halfway up his suit trousers. A shared joke at the expense of a dreadful local musician lights up both sets of eyes, drawing hostile glances from other audience members.

By falling in love, they’re fighting back against the strict conventions of their time. It's a tough battle to wage.

Technically, the film is marvellous. Lean, well over a decade off the start of his big canvas epics for which he’s best remembered, Brief Encounter shows a careful eye for intimacy in this tight, almost claustrophobic, domesticity. Beautifully shot by Robert Krasker, shadows splash across most scenes, dappling Laura in light that matches her moods. Lean employs other tricks as well, notably when he cuts out the world around her, blanking the space to leave only her head and face lit. This shows that her experiences, for better and worse, are cut off from everyone else.

Laura and Alec are not the only ones shining. The screenplay, adapted from Noël Coward’s single act play Still Life set entirely in a railway café, is a triumph in nuance. He employs a voiceover for Laura to reveal deeper thoughts while contrasting the vital, very much alive conversation between Laura and Alec with that of the provincial gossips surrounding them. The opening scene, one that will come to have far more significance by the end, sets this up early.

Johnson and Howard are also superb; placid on the outside, each burning up inside. In this film, they convey more meaning in a few simple gestures than some actors manage ever manage to attain. Just watch Alec’s hand on Laura’s shoulder. It’s charged with an intense energy that doesn’t quickly fade.

For all these laudable traits, there are problems that have contributed to its ability to provoke mixed feelings. Unnecessary repetition creeps in as the unhappy romance walks through the same dates and same conversations. More egregiously, a key scene near the end switches the perspective from Laura to Alec. It’s really her story, not his and this change-up, albeit a brief one, stands out like a sore thumb. It’s not that the scene, a confrontation between Alec and his friend Stephen (Valentine Dyall), is bad, it just shouldn’t have happened. It’s Laura with the voiceovers, Laura with the busybody friends that must be shrugged off and the family we see when she returns home, whom we want to concentrate on.

Brief Encounter breaks hearts. To watch Laura and Alec grasp at happiness, the kind of happiness that simply isn’t allowed, is hard to bear. They may suspect what they have is illusory, but that doesn’t stop it being real enough to tear them apart first, particularly Laura who becomes, ever so briefly, a woman reborn. Her life isn’t so terrible; it’s just one that's forced upon her. Her time with Alec is a moment of free will, a brief encounter that cuts through everything else. It can’t go on forever, but it will never be forgotten.

The Criterion Collection release is a high-definition digital transfer of the BFI’s 2008 restoration and includes audio commentary from film historian Bruce Eder, an interview with Noël Coward scholar Barry Day, archive documentaries on Brief Encounter and David Lean, and a written essay by Kevin Brownlow.

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