Exploring the Morality of Romance within ‘Brief Encounter’, 60 Years On

If rom-coms are the easiest way to indulge in the caprices of love, then romantic tragedies such as Brief Encounter show how love can be ruinous.

Love “isn’t all that really matters.”

Despite being released 60 years ago in 1945, Brief Encounter — director David Lean’s tale of two star-crossed lovers desperately trying to have an affair in suburban England — still resonates with modern viewers and offers them plenty to think about. It would be all too easy to brush off the character’s reserved actions as particularly pre-wartime British (the film is set around 1938) and amuse ourselves with how times have changed, as though we would have had none of Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec’s (Trevor Howard) nonsense and just cut to the bed-hopping chase; but if modern reality shows, TV soap dramas, tween-age films, and the proliferation of erotic romance novels adapted into the mainstream have taught us anything, it’s that unfathomably complicated and protracted love affairs can still cut to the moral epicentre of our culture, whether we invite them there or not.

According to critics such as David Thomson, Brief Encounter may well be “the best romantic film of all time”; yet, to a certain extent this praise comes across as slightly jarring, because the story actually presents people frantically attempting to work through their romantic feelings with the results ranging from extreme acts of self-torture and unconsummated love through to a general difficulty in functioning at all well within society.

If rom-coms are the easiest way to zippily engage with the caprices of love and still find a happy ending, then romantic tragedies show the extent to which love can be ruinous, challenging, and largely unfulfilling. Of course, in a romantic tragedy this struggle is counterbalanced by a more heightened appreciation of the times where the spiralling narrative was interrupted by fleeting flashes of passion—instants where in the face of the entire world’s unheeding, uncaring, and unsympathetic actions, two people got together and overcame the odds for a brief moment.

And therein lies the problem, because while Rick from Casablanca (1942) reassures us that “we’ll always have Paris”, Rose still lets Jack sink to his watery grave at the end of Titanic (1997). In romantic tragedies, there is a perpetual sense that some omniscient world mandate will reset the clock on any untoward shenanigans; yet, what we’re actually looking at here is the intersection between discourses of culture and the rights of the individual within the public sphere—we’ve somehow become our own killjoys. Part of the perpetual agony in (re)watching Brief Encounter is in knowing that were the narrative to reign in its protagonists to within the boundaries set by society’s codes and conventions, the internal moral order has still been disrupted by Laura and Alec’s struggle, and there must be consequences.

Many romantic tragedies are set against the backdrop of an epic conflict: World War II, the sinking of an unsinkable ship, the American Civil War, the collapse of an Empire, an incurable disease of some sort, and so on. Brief Encounter, on the other hand, places the characters at the center of their story and remains focused on them—for Laura and Alec their own story is about themselves; nothing else could be as important, and anything else would be a distraction. Other characters work in the periphery, as two-dimensional enablers or hinderers evoking the specter of class-consciousness whenever the romance is in danger of becoming fruitful, so that the fears and reassurances that the main protagonists work through feel more realistic for not being tied to some overblown narrative conceit, but to a shared cultural reality that a viewer could directly relate to. As with the climax of Brief Encounter, we have all been distracted by a bit-player when the grand narrative of our life is trying to sweep us off in another direction.

Brief Encounter refuses to fully condone or repudiate the actions of its characters. Viewers are left to their own conclusions about the actions of the characters, which might be liberating or problematic for viewers who notice how the film may reflect upon their own social relationships. For example, in Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean, the author recounts a famous anecdote in which an angry man approached Lean at a railway station. The perturbed gentleman said to Lean: “I am exercising the greatest restraint in not hitting you… Do you realise, sir, that if Celia Johnson could contemplate being unfaithful to her husband, my wife could contemplate being unfaithful to me?” The man’s comments are perhaps more famous for their overwhelming patriarchal naivety than any recognition that Lean was corrupting a female cinema-going audience, who with the advent and cessation of the War, were beginning to benefit from far greater economic and personal freedoms than ever before.

The adulterous relationship is never presented from the perspective of the faithful husband because Laura’s story is enacted as a form of pleading confession or psychiatric therapy session. She wants the audience to understand her point of view while she debates the twists and turns, but she also craves acceptance that in the end, she made the right decision. Gerald Pratley’s book, The Cinema of David Lean, notes that Lean himself had stated: “What is there to say about the human condition which hasn’t been said already? [….] I’m putting into pictures something that’s already there […] Something I agree with and feel concerned about”.

With Brief Encounter, Lean was not creating new social orders, rather he was reflecting emergent concerns with the social injustice of transgression, as his two lovers are forced apart by an ideological regime that fails them when they are complicit with it, and punishes them when they are not. Taken as the central drive of the film, it is not surprising that some critics, such as Richard Dyer, have also considered gay audience readings of the film.

Lean was conscious that in making a movie—a type of “eavesdrop”—which becomes an especially effective strategy in Brief Encounter because, as his biography records, “they’re two of the least likely people to have a secret love affair, highly respectable and dead honest… you are fascinated by the way it works with them”. In many ways, the normalcy of Brief Encounter stands as a distinctly British antithesis to hyperbolic romance films—such as the classic Cary Grant screwball comedies of the time—where it was inevitable that passion would ignite between the leads on screen at some point for the viewing pleasure of the audience, who have paid for precisely such a spectacle.

However, the way that it works for Laura is a constant rubber banding between two types of mental states, both of which address deeper and potentially more realistic emotional issues than functioning as mere plot contrivances to entertain an audience. There is the egocentric love, which occurs during scenes such as when Laura sees a little boy playing with a boat who looks like her son and she couldn’t appear any less bothered about her socially ordained familial role. Counterpoised with this are scenes of profound social guilt; for example, when Laura realizes that she is telephoning a friend to corroborate her story and she shows grief in her voice-over. Although some of these scenes are a little heavy-handed, they also function to elevate normal actions, which a viewer might also undertake, into heightened spaces where emotional and social consequences can, and probably should be, considered, without directly telling a viewer (or Laura) what to think and do.

Laura’s husband complicates the unfurling affair, responding to Laura’s admission that she had dinner with a stranger with “fine, what are we having for dinner.” Because Laura has deeper feelings than a husband whose only “brief encounter” with romance is with the crossword of the Times newspaper, her actions, although unjust against her husband, seem in some way validated by his passivity. Laura is clearly not content with her position in society; the lines are spoken in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962): “This is my home”, do not seem to be enough for Laura. Marriage/family/home do not equal the weight of the eight times that she says “I wish” in the film.

Laura’s contrasting views towards Fred—her husband—and Alec—her lover—can be witnessed in one of the first scenes of the film. As Laura listens to Rachmaninov, Lean uses a wide-angle lens to partially distort the image, thereby pushing the husband further into the background. This reflects her rejection of what society has allocated her and introduces the alternative through dissolving the image to the station tea room where the still seated Laura witnesses the figure of Fred being replaced by Alec.

Although Lean allows the adulterous couple to “do such violence to [their] hearts and minds”, he does present extended metaphors as sub-plots within the text. The children metaphorically represent the opposition within Laura. One child wants to go to the circus and one wants to go to the pantomime; both events are socially sanctioned forms of entertainment in themselves (like feeling love for people), but when the children cannot decide on which they would prefer they become “very naughty” (like Laura wanting both partners). Furthermore, when Fred tells Laura “why not take them to both”, one on one day and one on another, she replies that would be impossible because “they’d be tired and fractious”. Laura is equally “tired and fractious” because she is seeing her men alternately and can not handle the guilt. Like other elements of Brief Encounter, when Lean shows a social transgression he presents it such that no definite didactic belief is enforced, rather, the actions are both simultaneously wrong within a strict social/cultural sense, but correct within humanistic frameworks such as personal happiness and freedom.

According to Louis P. Castelli and Carryn Lynn Cleeland, one of the most frequent aspects of a David Lean film is that “none of the married relationships contains sexual passion, and none of the sexual passions end in marriage”. Laura’s marriage to Fred seems more like an act of convenience or duty rather than the result of real love. Laura says to Fred when she has just tried to commit suicide: “I should like to be able to say it was the thought of you and the children that prevented me, but it wasn’t”. This brutally honest perception of her desires makes the morally positive ending more than a little uncomfortable for both herself and any sympathetic viewers.

Laura cannot “let the great big world keep turning” and keep up her adulterous affair because in trying to create a perfect world for herself, she can only create a brief bracketed rupture due to her situation in society. This awareness by the character of Laura means that not only are her desires kept on the fringes of her life, but that when she is put into a position where she can imagine a deeper affair with Alec, as when the fantasies of being at the opera in Paris or the Grand Canal in Venice superimpose themselves on the flashback.

This desire must eventually cancel itself out and be nullified. Part of the reason that her fantasies disintegrate is that Laura only wishes to experience desire, and not fully embrace it along with the consequences of social challenge and upheaval. The incident at the flat marks the moment of greatest guilt in Laura, and it is correspondingly hostile and uncomfortable in return. Even though the two are alone and in a private space, in Laura’s mind, the attempt to bring the “other space” of adultery to the “normal space” of the social/domestic home must be unjust and consequently fail.

Trevor Howard once questioned why the adulterers failed to consummate their affair; Raymond Durgnat’s synopsis of the film twenty years after its first screening was “Make tea, not love”. According to Brownlow, French critics were equally shocked that Laura and Alec “could be in love and didn’t somehow find the opportunity to go to bed”. Bearing in mind that a film such as Psycho (1960), made 15 years after Brief Encounter, managed to upset some viewers by showing an unmarried couple in a hotel room post-coitus, it’s not too difficult to imagine the implication for showing or suggesting that two people in an affair are also intimately enjoying the company of each other, and it would also be a point beyond which some people may have supported Laura’s actions.

Brief Encounter is an examination of the social and moral repercussions of falling in love with the wrong ‘right person’. It shows us a paradox of frustration through which romance is a briefly glorious struggle and fulfillment is only fleeting entirely because of belief systems held by other people. While the film is created for the viewing pleasures of the audience, it also endeavors to show us something about our own lives. When the couple has been discovered at the flat, Alec, wrapped up in the confines of his own romantic fiction, says “we know we really love each other, that’s true, that’s all that matters.” To which Laura replies, and the audience is encouraged to agree that it may be true, but “it isn’t all that really matters”.