A ”woman’s picture.” A tearjerker. A three-handkerchief “weepie.” You could laugh off this film of love overpowering but chastely resisted and unconsummated as a “chick flick.” (Think of the current Twilight vampire movies.) And people did laugh— after the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, Swinging London, Carnaby Street, the Beatles and all the rest. Remember “Make love, not war?” This film, critics said, was “Make tea, not love.”
Yet when it first appeared, it shared the 1946 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and the female lead, Celia Johnson, was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. Brief Encounter continues to enchant audiences and men as well as women, even if it is old-fashioned, sentimental, and incorrigibly romantic. People say it’s “the British Casablanca.” In 1999 Brief Encounter came in second in a British Film Institute poll of the top 100 British films (Carol Reed’s The Third Man was first, but David Lean had seven films in the list.)
British movies of the ’40s and ’50s (like the wartime morale boosters or the Ealing comedies) tend to the bland. But they project traditional values of family, country, and a fundamental decency, tact, and kindness that, unfortunately, seem old-fashioned to us today in our corrupted land and time. And no movie projects those old, square values more tellingly than Brief Encounter, with its chaste, ever-so-reluctant lovers.
Suburban wife and mother Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) goes into town every Thursday to shop and go to “the pictures.” By chance she meets a friendly doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), also married with children. They lunch and go together to a movie, then a second movie, then a park, go for a boat ride, all spaced out in her Thursdays. Finally he, and then she, confess that they are in love, deeply, overwhelmingly in love. But their love is hopeless. The doctor announces that he and his family will move to South Africa—end of romance. The suburban wife returns to mild, decent, sensitive husband Fred—and weeps.
This is a simple, even banal story. But I think director David Lean and writer and producer Noel Coward have actually created a complex film that suggests much more about human nature than suburban adultery. The four-man writing team hugely expanded Brief Encounter from Coward’s 30-minute one-act play Still Life. They built a film with many different scenes and locales that reflect back on the central action. Lean and the others gave it an intriguingly eloquent structure.
Structurally, the film begins and ends in the usual manner of film illusion. But the central action, the romance, takes place entirely in monologue and flashback, that is, within the housewife’s mind. She simultaneously narrates the story and lives it.
We begin with the lovers’ parting (although, if you haven’t seen the movie before, you don’t know that it’s a parting). It is “objectively” told in the usual way of movies. A man and a woman are talking glumly in the drab, gray “refreshment room” of a provincial railroad station. A talky neighbor of the woman’s interrupts them with mindless chatter. The man can’t get a word in, stands, presses a hand briefly on the woman’s shoulder, and silently leaves. The woman and the garrulous neighbor get on the train, she continuing to pester the woman with nosy questions, while the woman lapses into a dreamy interior monologue. She returns home. (A man’s hat, huge in the foreground, tells us that this home serves male needs, not female.)
After settling her squabbling children and conversing somewhat testily with her husband, the woman turns on the radio and we hear Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2—an incredibly swoony and romantic piece of music. (Do you remember Sinatra’s hit, “Full Moon and Empty Arms.”? ). Her husband concentrates on his crossword puzzle. His wife settles into remembrance of things past—now over and never to be recovered.
From here on until the very end, the movie consists entirely of flashback and interior monologue as the Laura Jesson, suburban housewife and mother (Celia Johnson) goes through in her mind her “brief encounter” with Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), husband, father, and doctor. On successive Thursdays, Laura’s “day in town,” we see the couple becoming and more attracted to each other. Ultimately they declare their love. Both are married with children, though, and they agree that their love is hopeless. The doctor announces that he will move himself and his family to a new job in Johannesburg.
This flashback and recollection continues now through a repetition of the film’s opening in the station café: the garrulous friend, the lovers’ parting, and the wife’s return home. But this time we see the events through her mind, not “objectively.” Knowing what we now know, that this is two lovers parting the neighbor’s chatter becomes (for me, anyway) incredibly painful.
Only after the flashback has brought us to present time do we return to ordinary film style and “reality” again. She wakens. The husband comes out of his crossword puzzle and comforts her. It is he who says the final words of the film: “You’ve been a long way away.” “Thank you for coming back to me.” Fred is passive, sedentary. When we see Alec, he is running or boating or driving or urging kisses and sex on Laura. He is, she says, “like a little boy.” Decent and kind as Fred is, he is boring.
It is a crushing finale, Laura shoved back into Fred's passionless, repetitious world of 1940s domesticity. She is a Victorian Angel in the House who has lasted into the 1930s. The structure focuses us on the woman’s mind and the conflict between her interior state and the exterior circumstances that doom her romance.
The opening shot always says a lot about a movie as a whole. Albert, an assistant stationmaster (Stanley Holloway) watches as first one, then a second express train going in the opposite direction hurtles through this country railroad station. He checks his watch and smiles with satisfaction. The trains are on time, and all’s right with the world. Albert goes into the dreary, gray “refreshment room” and tells Myrtle, the prissy lady behind the counter (Joyce Carey), about a “dust-up.” A passenger tried to ride first class with a third-class ticket.
This first sequence seemingly has nothing to do with the main story. Two trains, going in opposite directions? Two people? More significantly, somebody was breaking the rules.
From this opening, we go to the objective telling of the lovers’ final parting. But that plot also deals intensely with people breaking the rules.
All this opening sequence is presented in the normal mode of movie telling: the illusion that we are seeing actual events through photography. The center of the movie, the romantic affair, takes place in flashback and interior monologue. We see the romantic events through Laura’s mind, most of them as she sits in her living room, listening to the romantic piano concerto. Then, finally, she snaps out of her reverie, and we come back to ordinary movie storytelling when she returns to her housewifely existence.
Rachmaninoff’s Concerto in C minor plays a key role (yes, pun intended). Producer and scriptwriter Noel Coward chose it specifically. As the film follows Laura through the “brief encounter,” it plays again and again at the most intense moments. Finally, just as Laura recalls the intense, passionate moment of their first kiss, husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) turns down the Rachmaninoff.
The music is both inside and outside or, as film theorists would say, both diegetic and non-diegetic. We see the radio playing the concerto, but it also plays in Laura’s mind. As does the story. We begin to see it in the usual storytelling manner of movies, but we go on to see it through Laura’s mind in monologue and flashback—with the exception of one crucial scene having to do with Alec and Laura’s guilt.
Throughout the affair, figures appear who mobilize Laura’s sense of guilt about her love. Albert the guard’s complaining of people breaking the rules sets the tone and the dreadful, gabby neighbor who breaks in on the lovers’ parting in the opening scene continues that world outside that will not permit this love inside. Later, a clergyman on her train looks at Laura doubtfully. A policeman appears and questions her as she wanders distraught, in the dark. In a restaurant, she encounters friends who ask intrusive questions. An ominous shadow intervenes when the lovers first kiss. Laura’s son, Bobbie, is hit by a car, and she perceives this as punishment. But one guilt-arousing scene is special.
On the next-to-last of the seven Thursdays, Alec has borrowed a car for an outing and an apartment from a co-worker, Steven (Valentine Dyall). After a romantic day in the country, he cajoles Laura into accompanying him back to the apartment where he plans that they will consummate their affair. But before anything can happen, Steven unexpectedly returns. Laura escapes unseen out the back door, but Steven spots a scarf she left behind and realizes that Alec was about to have sex with a woman not his wife. In a very snide and snarky dialogue, he humiliates Alec who leaves shamefacedly.
Now, since Laura escaped before Steven came in, she could not possibly have seen or heard this conversation. Yet she reports it in her interior monologue. Was this just a mistake on David Lean’s part? Or can we read it another way?
I think Lean is deliberately encouraging us to think about what is inside Laura’s mind and what is outside, in the movie’s “objective” world. Steven, in this conversation, is outside Laura’s knowledge. He makes the most direct accusation in the film. He knows, and he makes it painfully clear that he knows that what Alec and Laura are doing is wrong, wrong, wrong. So cutting is his condemnation that it reaches past the literal boundaries of what Laura can and cannot know. This is objectively wrong. I think Lean is asking us to think about what is inside and outside our minds. How do we feel about this affair?
Of all the things that threaten the lovers from outside, though, the most compelling are trains. Brief Encounter is very much a train movie (as in the opening shot). Trains and train schedules determine everything about the lovers’ meetings. Trains, for example, provide a particularly ironic, even cruel “rhyme.”
Laura and Alec meet because of a train. In the opening, she watches a train rush by, and gets a speck of coal dust in her eye. He steps forward (”I happen to be a doctor”) and gets it out. Their relationship proceeds from there. (Later, Alec tells her that his medical specialty is helping miners cope with coal dust in their lungs.)
Toward the end of the picture, Alec having left forever and the jabbering neighbor driving her crazy, Laura tears out of the refreshment room and again watches a train rush by. This time, she nearly throws herself under it but cannot. The first trainwatching leads to love and joy; the second, its “rhyme,” expresses (no pun intended) suicidal despair.
Trains determine this film another way—by the other couple in Brief Encounter. These two are locked into the world of trains: Albert is the assistant stationmaster and Myrtle presides over the “refreshments” in the station café. (Those are scare quotes. Notice how the pastries get dropped on the floor and casually put back on the counter to be served. English food!) Albert and Myrtle provide a lower-class, easily sexual contrast to the uptight middle-class Laura and Alec. They flirt, and at one point Albert playfully slaps Myrtle’s butt—one can hardly imagine Alec doing that to Laura.
Joyce Carey and Stanley Holloway act these two with the customary skill of British character actors. Holloway, in particular, though from the middle class himself, clerked as a teenager at Billingsgate, London’s great fish market. There he perfected Cockney slang and mannerisms that he used in role after role in later life. (Remember “Get Me to the Church On Time” in My Fair Lady?)
Brief Encounter is very much a train movie, and when you stop and think about it, there are a zillion others. The International Movie Database lists 3786 films for which “train” is a keyword. (I won’t try to list them all here.) In fact, movies began with a train movie, Lumière’s L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat in 1897.
Movies link physically to trains as well. Peter Wollen in Sight and Sound in 1998, pointed out that cameras move on rails and motion pictures are images on celluloid tracks passing over stations of light. But most important, looking out a train window is like watching a movie. We sit, very much inside the train, very much constrained, much the way we sit in a movie theater. We look out the window at scenes flashing by, again rather like a motion picture.
In fact, one scene in this movie duplicates and complicates this idea. Laura is riding the train home after their first kiss. She looks out the window, dark because it is nighttime. Into the dark, she projects herself and Alec in a series of romantic scenes: a box at the opera; a gondola in Venice; a shipboard romance; a tropical beach. These are scenes she would have seen in her weekly trip to the movies.
This movie-within-a-movie is one reason I think trains perfectly represent what seems to me the larger theme of Brief Encounter, the fantastic life movies let us live inside our minds as opposed to the humdrum life and constraints of the world outside our minds.
In this movie it is up to the actors to convey that passionate fantasy, but within the reticence once so characteristic of the British manner—not easy, but they do it brilliantly. Celia Johnson is the star, the wife, Laura Jesson, she of the huge eyes, infinitely expressive. She seems so innocent until the moment when Laura and Alec say right out loud that they are in love. After that she is all restrained and fearful passion. She perfectly conveys a woman seized by emotion, but oh, so reluctantly, guiltily, regretfully, fearfully. Johnson has a curious mannerism that aids the characterization. Whenever Laura says something that asserts herself, Johnson draws her head back ever so slightly—watch for it. It helps her characterization tremendously.
This was Trevor Howard’s first starring role, and he achieves this modest, realistic but also idealistic doctor marvelously. No matinee idol he—he has a quite ordinary face, somewhat pockmarked in the cheeks. But he succeeds in projecting a remarkable mixture of profound decency combined with a lover’s forcefulness and urgency. Like Laura, he conveys the painful combination of his eagerness at this love with a reluctance to go with it.
British acting has always gotten to me. I’m not quite sure how they do it. British acting compensates for the other difficulties under which British film directors work.
François Truffaut has said that British film is a contradiction in terms. That’s unkind. Yet, as Laura says, “Do you know, I believe we should all behave quite differently if we lived in a warm, sunny climate all the time? We shouldn’t be so withdrawn and shy and difficult.” And true, British films are shy. They have not achieved a bold genre of their own like the French New Wave or Italian neo-realism. But British film works (or worked in those days) under handicaps.
The British tended then and maybe now to regard theater, even TV as more noteworthy than film for an actor or director. The British public doesn’t have the same involvement in film as Americans, French, Italian, or Japanese. Also British film has a strong documentary tradition: that tends to lock directors into Brief Encounter’s kind of homey realism, precluding more daring styles. A fine British documentary about a train, Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s Night Mail (1936) with music by Benjamin Britten and poetry by W. H. Auden influenced many other British movies.