Brief Encounter, 1946, directed by David Lean, written by David Lean, Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame from the play Still Life, by Noël Coward.
Brief Encounter is the epitome of a genre that has completely vanished from cinema: the woman's picture.1 Jim Shepard memorably described this type of film as stories that:
...trundled through decades of forbearance: slow-moving, mile-long freight trains of self-denial. All those women gave up what they most wanted for somebody else's sake. Which meant that their movies centered on events that didn't happen: the singing career that wasn't begun, the wedding that didn't occur, the meeting in the park that never came off, the key phrase left unspoken. Which made for movies obsessed with the life not lived: a weird negative space of the never-was and the might-have-been.
Well, the one-two punch of capitalism and feminism seems to have pretty well put paid to self-denial as a filmic virtue. The demographic once courted by weepies now lines up to see chick-flicks, which offer a different kind of pleasure entirely: pure wish-fulfillment. Don't get me wrong, it's fantastic that we live in a culture where self-abnegation is no longer a universal female experience. But it's certainly stranded Brief Encounter. Shepard's essay dealt with the way Babette's Feast transcended the confines of the genre, but that's not how Lean's movie work: it's an exemplar of the form, not a film that challenges its boundaries. Appropriately enough, it opens with one of those mile-long freight trains of self-denial:
Okay, so it's a passenger train of self-denial, and it's moving at a good clip. But the main character's hopes and dreams might as well have been tied to the tracks for all the possibilities the film affords her. Lean cuts to a small refreshment room at the station, where the camera eventually settles on a couple quietly having tea:
That's Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as Alec Harvey. Before we get to know much about them, they're joined at the table by Dolly, an older friend of Laura's who's talking as fast as the train that just passed. You can tell from Alec's expression how happy this makes them both:
Dolly prattles on and Alec and Laura are relentlessly polite. Eventually, Alec has to leave to catch his train. Later, we learn that this is the last time the two will ever see each other: Alec is leaving for South Africa. And that's the film in a nutshell: Laura and Alec's chances at happiness are continually, ruthlessly crushed—if not by those around them, by their own senses of propriety.
The rest of the story is told in an extended flashback, as Laura thinks over her almost-affair. That's when the film becomes difficult to take seriously, not because its cultural values are so alien, but because it relies to an insane degree on endless voiceovers. You know the kind of voiceover Scorsese uses in Goodfellas, where the narrator's words are belied by what you're seeing onscreen? Or the kind you see in films noir like Out of the Past, where you forgive the clumsy exposition because the story's moving so quickly? Or even the kind you see in adaptations of novels, where the screenwriter wants to capture something of the author's voice and can't come up with a better way to do it? Yeah, that's not really what David Lean is up to here. Instead, Brief Encounter is filled with basically static shots of Celia Johnson:
Over lines like this:
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.
I did identify with Celia's character when she spoke those lines, but not for quite the reasons the filmmakers must have hoped. It's a shame about the voiceover, because when the film isn't relying on it, it's excellent. Lean captures the stifling, cramped quality of Laura's life brilliantly, and he doesn't need voiceover to do it. Take, for example, her husband Fred, played by Cyril Raymond as a well-meaning dolt who would never suspect his wife had any sort of inner life:
From what we see of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Jesson at home, his greatest passion is for crossword puzzles, not his wife. Here's the scene where she attempts to tell him she's met someone:
I had lunch with a strange man
today, and he took me to the
Good for you!
He's awfully nice, he's a doctor.
A noble profession.
It was Richard the Third who said
"My kingdom for a horse," wasn't
Well, I wish to goodness he hadn't,
'cause it spoils everything.
If he reminds you of Joylon Wagg, please be assured this is deliberate. Laura's life when she's not with Alec is so miserable that it lends credence to the one part of her voiceover that indisputably works: her reflexive hostility to everyone that surrounds her. This comes through in little moments like a scene where she's shopping at a pharmacy and briefly sees someone she knows socially.
Here's the voiceover:
That awful Mrs. Leftwich was at the other end of the counter wearing one of the silliest hats I've ever seen. Fortunately, she didn't look up, so I got out without her buttonholing me.
The tragedy of Laura's life is that she never lets anyone know what she's thinking, and we get the impression that half of what clicks between her and Alec is that they're willing to tell each other when the stifling pressure of English good form gets to be too much. They first bond at a modest restaurant when they're confronted with possibly the worst cellist in the country:
The single most attractive thing about Alec is that he's willing to respond in the only rational fashion:
That afternoon, in one of the movie's best touches, the pair attend a movie and are greeted with a grim surprise at the Wurlitzer.
And that's all it takes. Alec doesn't really do much, except pay a small amount of attention to what Laura is saying, and react to the absurdity of English cordiality with a bit of humor. But someone as miserably lonely as Laura doesn't need much. In the end, however, he is as unable to make any definitive steps toward happiness as she is. And because of the film's flashback structure, we know all along where this is going: both of them are too unwilling to break decorum to even have a proper goodbye.
Watching today, it's impossible to fathom this kind of miserable self-control, and it makes some of their love scenes seem absurd. They're the first screen couple I would describe as "solemnly in love." Apparently, their reticence provoked jeers even at early test screenings, at least for working-class audiences (the middle class, on the other hand, loved the film). They don't even kiss until 45 minutes or so in—but it's worth noting that their brief moments of physicality are one of the things the movie gets right.
Robert Krasker, the DP, shoots them like it's a noir. They embrace beneath train platforms, with the rumble and squeal of an express roaring by above them. It's one of the best things in the movie, dark and furtive, and even—dare I say it?—sexy.
Well, I may say it, but neither Laura nor Alec would. And what one remembers most about Brief Encounter today is not the love story, such as it is, but the moments of supreme English social awkwardness that Lean captures.
That's the two lovers caught at lunch by two bitchy friends of Laura's ("I do so envy you your champagne," one of them says). Alec has a counterpart scene of social humiliation when they are interrupted before finally consummating their relationship by the arrival of the friend Alec has borrowed an apartment from, the most sallowly unpleasant man in the world:
Neither Alec nor Laura can stand the social pressure: apparently, laughing at cellists is one thing, but doing anything to make yourself happy is quite another.
Brief Encounter is often called "the British Casablanca": a hyperbolic comparison, but a useful cultural barometer. It took the full terror of the Nazi war machine to stop Rick and Ilsa from choosing their hearts over their consciences. But in the British version of Casablanca, it took what, exactly? Fear of the disapproval of biddies in hotel restaurants? Laura's paralysis reaches apotheosis near the end of the film, when she realizes that Dolly has robbed her of any chance to say goodbye to Alec. This is her at her most desperate. The camera tracks in and tilts sickeningly (Carol Reed would be proud):
And at her moment of greatest despondence, Laura gets up from her table, runs to the tracks, and almost throws herself in front of a train. Just like she almost had an affair, almost consummated her relationship, almost left her husband. It's the film's best, sickest joke. Having failed to give her life any of the sweep of Anna Karenina, she is equally unable to recreate its finale. At least Anna got to fuck Vronsky.
- Trevor Howard also played Major Calloway in The Third Man. His performance here is so different that it took me half the film to recognize him.
- The original play took place entirely in the refreshment room where Alec and Laura meet. And apparently it did a great deal more with a subplot that's almost wholly superfluous here, a working-class romance between a conductor and a shopclerk that was contrasted against Laura and Alec's middle-class angst.
- Lean did the right thing by paring these two way back, but he might have done better by disposing of them entirely; they did nothing for me.
- Bruce Eder, who recorded the commentary track, hates the scene where Alec's friend interrupts the two of them at his apartment. He has a point: the rest of the film is scrupulously told from Laura's perspective, and she has no way of knowing what happened at that apartment after she left it. William Goldman eviscerated Saving Private Ryan on the same grounds (but with more cause: the whole movie is a flashback remembered by someone who wasn't there; at least Lean only has one scene with this flaw). But Billy Wilder apparently would disagree with Eder: he found Alec's friend so interesting that it gave him the idea for The Apartment.
- The sound mix is exceptionally sophistocated throughout, from the opening howl of a train whistle to the Rachmaninoff score.
- Laura's husband does get a moment of redemption at the very end of the film, and it's almost enough to make her sacrifice seem noble. Almost.
- There's a nice jab at the film industry buried in Brief Encounter. Alec and Laura see a trailer for a movie called Flames of Passion, which is the usual Hollywood bullshit: a woman tied to a burning stake, natives throwing spears, slightly unbelievable marketing slogans:
- But the best part of the joke comes when the actually go to see the film. Remember, the trailer looks like it could be for a low-rent version of King Kong. Check out the original source material:
1Not counting semi-ironic revivals like Far From Heaven, one of Shepard's jumping-off points.