David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” captures love at its most ephemeral. It depicts the emotional affair between two middle-aged married people aware enough to know their relationship is unsustainable but too helpless to stop themselves, like they’re witnessing the slowest, most beautiful car crash in history. Housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and idealistic Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) move furtively in the shadows of British suburbia, hiding their love from their families and the repressed society, wanting to hold on to each other for as long as they can until the inevitable happens. They are just two ordinary people who live ordinary lives, but for a brief period of time, the two of them stand on the edge of something extraordinary.
Every Thursday, Laura takes the train to the nearby town of Milford to shop and go see a movie matinee. One day on her return trip home, she accidentally gets grit in her eye and jumps into the Milford railway station refreshment room to try to get it out, only for Dr. Harvey to come to her aid. The two of them part ways thinking nothing of their chance meeting, but after that Laura and Alec keep accidentally running into each other. Finally, the two have lunch and catch a movie together, and by the end of their casual date, Alec wants to meet up again next week. Soon their innocent relationship develops into something much deeper and more passionate as the two admit to each other that they’re in love. Eventually, Laura starts lying to her friends and family, and after an awkward brush with complete exposure, the two decide to end their relationship knowing that they can never be together.
Adapted from the Noel Coward play “Still Life,” “Brief Encounter” (which made actress Anne-Marie Duff’s list of the 10 greatest movies of all time in Time Out New York’s actors poll) tells a simple love story, but it’s the way Lean captures Laura and Alec’s private affair that elevates the film to tragic heights. Lean follows Coward’s lead and limits the film’s settings mostly to dark confined spaces — train stations, refreshment rooms, movie theaters, narrow alleyways — and occasionally an empty open space, like the quiet bridge overlooking a small stream in the country, so as to create the feeling that Laura and Alec’s love is removed from space and time. Lean treats these environments like they’re way station’s on life’s journey, fantasy places you can briefly occupy before returning to reality. Lean also makes sure to depict their love’s realistic gradual development, beginning with accidental encounters and small glances, moving up to private jokes and intimate conversations, and finally culminating in bold declarations and passionate embraces. But even more importantly, Lean depicts their love as inevitable. Both Laura and Alec know they’re playing with fire the minute they start casually spending time together— in fact, Laura practically confesses her secret love to her kind, but oblivious husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) early in the affair, only for him to brush it off like an annoyance akin to a crying child — but neither of them wants to quit, even if they can only act on their repressed feelings in secret. However, it’s that same keen awareness that leads to the tragic end of their relationship, as neither can envision an actual future with the other, especially so late in their lives.
Lean also heightens the film’s tragedy by actively empathizing with all of his subjects, especially Laura, whose mild restlessness he treats with profound sensitivity. Celia Johnson beautifully imbues Laura with a recognizable sense of discontent (she’s not unhappy, per se, but she’s quietly weary of the doldrums of middle-aged life), and Lean supports her performance with warm compositions and delicate close-ups, placing her perspective front and center. Laura expresses her most inexpressible desires in voiceover (an imaginary confession to her husband, narratively speaking), and Lean lingers on Johnson’s textured face as she complains about her friends and acquaintances or waxes poetic about fleeting happiness. Though Lean never overtly leans on the social repression of British society, it exists in every frame of “Brief Encounter,” from the noirish shadows that follow Laura and Alec as they walk in public to the lonely shots of Laura smoking in the street after a surreptitious meeting with Alec at his friend’s flat is ruined by his premature return. Lean cleanly shoots “Brief Encounter” with confidence, only choosing to formally express himself at key moments, such as the devastating slow tilt of the camera when Laura realizes Alec’s discrete shoulder squeeze serves as his final goodbye to her.
It’s these mostly subtle touches that elevate “Brief Encounter” beyond its modest premise, but interestingly enough, Lean never lets the audience forget the ordinariness of Laura and Alec’s story. We’re first introduced to the two of them in the background of the daily flirtation between Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey), two Milford station employee. From there, Lean slowly situates us into their lives, illustrating that their affair isn’t larger than life, but in the background of plenty of other people’s stories. (In fact, Coward contrasts the joyful open flirtation between Godby and Bagot with the surreptitious, often-painful affair between Laura and Alec, as that kind of burning taboo desire doesn’t belong out in the open.) Laura and Alec’s relationship ends in an ordinary way, with a small gesture and a parting glance, and the two return to their ordinary lives. Their affair was doomed from the start, and neither party was under any illusion that they could beat the odds. Laura and Alec experienced a brief moment of psychic and social liberation before the demands of conventional society got in the way, but there’s joy to be found in their brief encounter. In Laura’s indelible worlds, “Nothing lasts, really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.”
More thoughts from the web:
Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club
The name David Lean brings to mind the sweeping films that dominated the British director’s later career, movies with size and scope that miraculously don’t outweigh their director’s ambition and ability. While Lean had few peers when it came to visually overwhelming epics, he never lost track of their human element. It’s Lawrence that stays with you long after Lean’s vision of Arabia has begun to fade. This sense of character is a natural outgrowth of Lean’s early directing career, which began with four adaptations of Noel Coward plays produced in collaboration with the playwright. The last of these, the…1945 film “Brief Encounter,” is also the most famous, a film as confined, brisk, and economical as Lean’s later work is sprawling. But the qualities that make a Lean film are already in evidence. Not only does the director make an entire world out of the film’s environments — train stations, movie theaters, mid-tier restaurants — but he also fills them with unforgettably drawn characters. Celia Johnson stars as a housewife just shy of middle age, a woman who describes herself as “happily married” but nonetheless falls easily into a chaste but passionate affair with married doctor Trevor Howard. Though it relies heavily on Johnson’s voiceover narration, this quintessentially English story of subjugated passion also plays out in undiscussed details: the degree, for instance, to which each character’s life has become determined by train schedules. Or, even more tellingly, the way a character’s description of Howard as “very attentive” says everything about why Johnson would leave a loving marriage for a potentially destructive romance. Read more.
Michael Mirasol, RogerEbert.com
It’s refreshing to find a classic romance without meet-cutes and pathetic attempts to be clever, with two adults who know what is happening to them, feeling passion which they may have thought was lost for good. Both know their undertaking is unwise and know, within their realities, what needs to be done. But that doesn’t mean what they feel isn’t shared, precious, and true. With “Brief Encounter,” David Lean (who earned his first Oscar nomination for this picture) shows his growing directorial gifts on route to his epic mastery of the movies and bravely deals with love that is frowned upon. It is courageous, sincere, and incredibly romantic. Read more.
Mike D’Angelo, Letterboxd
For all the romances the movies have given us, there are precious few in which you really witness two people gradually falling in love, as opposed to the insta-passion shorthand that’s usually employed (or the comic convention in which it’s a final-reel revelation). Certainly it’s never been more exquisitely realized than it is here, in all its glory and misery. Hard to believe Coward originally wrote it as a play, as so much of its emotional power derives from the device of having Laura narrate the story — in her imagination only — to her devoted husband; all the “opened-out” scenes seem essential, and there may be no finer moment in British cinema than the one in which the potential cuckold perceives his rival as a tedious imposition rather than a threat, inspiring gales of laughter from Laura, who’d been anxiously trying to semi-confess. Lean shoots most of the film as simply and cleanly as possible, which lends uncommon force to his very occasional formal gambits — the Tilt of Madness on the platform at the end, of course (wrecks me every time), but also the abrupt cut from close-up to long shot when Laura and Alec first kiss, which is the exact opposite of what you’d expect, and utterly perfect. Read more.
Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
David Lean’s classic weepie, adapted from a Noël Coward play (“Still Life”), is sheer perfection — the gold standard of tragic romances whose influence can still be seen to this day. (Andrew Haigh’s recent indie “Weekend” gave the basic template a queer twist, and plenty have interpreted Coward’s story as a coded gay romance.) Johnson and Howard’s repressed passion could fuel an English tank battalion, and the shadowy black-and-white cinematography — a love story drenched in noirish tones — looks especially gorgeous in [the] new 4K restoration. But it’s not all tears and anguish: Lean and Coward leaven the film’s inevitably upsetting outcome with a few pointedly satirical asides, the best of which is a movie-within-the-movie (“Flames of Passion”) that does all the emoting “Brief Encounter’s” prim-and-proper protagonists can’t. Read more.
Vadim Rizov, The L Magazine
“Brief Encounter” contains a lot of conflicting ideas and possible interpretations. The six-times married Lean (then only on his second spouse) understands Laura’s urges, but the film has a gay cult following attuned to its shadow narrative (attributed to Noel Coward, whose play was greatly expanded for filming), in which the couple must hide their urges from the world around them much like criminalized gay men. Howard didn’t understand why his second ever film role didn’t end in consummation. (Lean told biographer Kevin Brownlow that Howard asked “They know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him, why doesn’t he fuck her?”) That frustration is intensely felt (if slightly enervating in its second act, which can only repeat itself), but “Brief Encounter” is most compactly understood as a monument to romance as antisocial pact, an appeal both specific to its time and place and one with universal lure. Read more.
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
That’s all there is to the story — a quite ordinary middle-class wife, contentedly married and the mother of two children, meets a similarly settled doctor one day while on a weekly shopping visit to a town near that in which she lives. The casual and innocent acquaintance, renewed on successive weeks, suddenly ripens into a deep affection by which both are shaken and shocked. For a brief spell they spin in the bewilderment of conventions and their own emotional ties. Then they part, the doctor to go away and the wife to return to her home. There are obvious flaws in the story. The desperate affection of the two develops a great deal more rapidly than the circumstances would seem to justify. And the cheerful obtuseness of the lady’s husband is more accommodating than one would expect. But the whole thing has been presented in such a delicate and affecting way — and with such complete naturalness in characterization and fidelity to middle-class detail — that those slight discrepancies in logic may be easily allowed. Read more.
Don Drucker, The Chicago Reader
This is the film that established David Lean’s reputation, before he went on to such bombastic exercises as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Ryan’s Daughter” and shifted from being — in Lindsay Anderson’s view — England’s white hope to England’s white elephant. Though based on a short play (and screenplay) by Noel Coward that rarely rises above the level of the old women’s magazines, this 1945 tale of the chance meeting and almost affair of a bored suburban housewife (Celia Johnson) and a married doctor (Trevor Howard) in a provincial railway buffet does manage to zero in on some of the more depressing aspects of English middle-class life, and thus survives more as a social document than a genuinely compelling drama. Read more.
Pauline Kael, The New Yorker
David Lean directed this romantic expansion of Noel Coward’s one-act play “Still Life” (from the collection of one-act plays, “Tonight at 8:30”) – an evocation of the emotions that lie dormant in respectable, middle-class existence. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard play the pair who fall passionately in love but agree not to see each other again and return to their responsibilities. And they do this with such touching restraint that they broke many hearts. A celebrated, craftsmanlike tearjerker, and incredibly neat. There’s not a breath of air in it. Noel Coward’s material is implicitly condescending even while he’s making the two heroic. Read more.