When it’s on: Friday, 27 July (3.00 pm)
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.
The 100th review on this site covers one of the unimpeachably finest examples of British cinema, and a reminder that before he was handed lavish budgets and dealt with grand subjects, David Lean was capable of producing genius from intimate little films about ordinary people.
Brief Encounter marked the final collaboration between Lean and Noel Coward. It’s based on the latter’s play Still Life, Lean taking a hand in the linear narrative by telling the story in flashback. Both are instances of economic construction. Celia Johnson was given the role played on stage by Gertrude Lawrence of Laura Jesson, a housewife in her 30s whose routine includes Thursday trips into Milford. It’s during one of these visits, while Laura waits in the Milford Junction train station cafe for her connection, that her ‘brief encounter’ begins. Suffering from grit in her eye, she’s attended to by Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), a physician who successfully removes it before catching his own train home. Laura thinks little of the incident besides a feeling of gratitude and mild interest, but a chance meeting the following week gives the romance a chance to blossom. Before long, the pair are spending their Thursdays together, Alec forgoing his practice to meet Laura in restaurants and going to the cinema with her. And then they kiss, the start of an affair both know is wrong yet neither wants to end.
The story is told from Laura’s perspective, and her narration provides the film’s heart. From the start of the affair, it’s made clear that she doesn’t really like it. The love she quickly develops for Alec is a sensation she’s trapped within. It’s something she literally can’t help, but it brings her no happiness, only guilt as she returns home to her solid, boring husband (Cyril Raymond), treats every illness her children succumb to as moral punishment and listens to the emotionally turbulent piano concertos of Rachmaninov, which are wholly reflective of her mood. The comparisons with Wuthering Heights – another tale of passion between two people that’s ill advised and brings only misery – are possible to make, but the resolution is entirely different. The film’s called Brief Encounter for a reason. Laura and Alex never go beyond their stolen Thursdays together, and the affair ends when the Doctor takes a job in Johannesburg, giving every impression of fleeing the country rather than letting their relationship develop beyond something they can control.
Also worthy of note is the way the affair develops, from nothing and entirely based on a chance encounter. It’s a sentiment never overly stated, the randomness of life and the way it’s filled with moments like these. What matters is how they’re acted upon, the decisions by Laura and Alec ultimately to suppress their desires and go back to their normal lives. The film’s ending may appear downbeat; it’s easy to imagine a twenty first century picture finishing on the couple giving up their past lives because ‘they’re made for each other’, yet real life isn’t like the movies and Laura and Alec’s parting has the whiff of authenticity. Neither’s a bad person. Both have family commitments, not to mention the fact they love their spouses and children.
Trevor Howard’s career broke on his performance as Alec. He spent the rest of his acting life trying to live the part down, but in hindsight had the happy record of looking back on major roles in the top two British films of the 20th century. But this is Celia Johnson’s picture. Her narration – my copy of the Carlton DVD release features her quietly desperate voice on the menu; it’s really haunting – is just lovely, delivering all the misery and hysteria that her face only rarely conveys. It’s a performance that is surprisingly unsexy. Again, almost impossible to imagine now, but her affair is restricted to passionate kisses. No clothes come off. Neither is she the kind of beguiling beauty that one imagines, though when she breaks into a smile her entire face lights up.
The town scenes were filmed in Beaconsfield, whilst Carnforth Station doubled as Milford Junction as it was on the main line and shots of real expresses powering through could be filmed. The cafe, the film’s pivotal set, was filmed in a studio, and allowed supporting players Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey to blossom. Holloway’s good natured station master is a treat and plays beautifully against the cafe manager, with Carey affecting graces and sticking to rules in running a tight ship.
Brief Encounter is a wonderful piece of work, acted sublimely and directed perfectly by Lean, who makes it look so natural as though he simply pointed the camera at his performers and let them do the rest. There’s just one scene that lapses into outright fantasy (Laura imagining a glamorous life for Alec and herself); the rest feels organic and so unforced that it’s possible to get the impression the characters ignored the script and started taking the film in the direction they wanted it to go. But that’s great art, and that’s life. As Alec and Laura spend their last, gloomy minutes together in the cafe, they’re interrupted by one of the latter’s gossipy friends. The moment’s shattered. That final kiss never happens. It’s one final tragedy in a film filled with them.
Brief Encounter: *****