Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard
When you think David Lean, you think big, exciting, and sweeping. You think Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Bridge on the River Kwai. But for me, Brief Encounter, so very different from Lean’s later work, is passionate and evocative enough to easily rank it among Lean’s best despite of – or perhaps because of – its much more modest focus.
We meet Laura Jesson (Johnson) when she seems to be having a difficult day. She is upset and anxious as she travels home from a train station. When she sits in front of her fireplace with her husband Fred, she starts narrating in her head the tale of her recent platonic love affair with Dr. Alec Harvey (Howard), which just ended that day. Through flashback, we go back to the beginning of Laura and Alec’s relationship as she recalls meeting him at the train station, and how they continued to meet once a week at or near the train station.
There are a great many things I feel very fondly of in Brief Encounter. I’ll start with the central relationship between Laura and Alec. Both Laura and Alec are married, and contentedly so, with children. Both Laura and Alec are middle-aged; perhaps still on the youngish side, but definitely no spring chickens. Both are leading lives of sedate routine. When they meet, it’s completely innocuous as he takes a piece of dirt out of her eye. When they meet again, though, they happily start to fall in with one another, they enjoy spending time with one another, and suddenly, they realize they are in love.
So much is made of the fact that the relationship between the two is platonic; I believe the two only kiss three times and cuddle a bit. There is an opportunity for more at one point, but both of them are anxious and guilt-ridden about it, so nothing happens. Nearly every single damn review I’ve ever read of Brief Encounter talks about the fact that this is a platonic relationship with a derogatory attitude, often stating that it horribly dates the film because these two lovers don’t bump uglies. What I desperately want to impress here is this restraint between Laura and Alec is one of the things I love most about this movie. I do not think it dates it in the least. I think it is what makes the film shine as a bright, though unusual, jewel.
I say this because it is precisely their restraint that helps me relate to Laura and Alec even more. I was raised to be moral. I believe strongly in not cheating on whoever one may be in a relationship with. I have been in a few significant relationships in my life, and I can point to one or two instances where I was in a relationship yet felt an intense emotional connection to someone else. It caused me angst. However, I restrained myself and nothing (or, perhaps, the right thing… I’m not telling all my personal secrets here) happened. Needless to say, I never cheated. While Laura and Alec are certainly cheating on their spouses, they also feel horrible about the whole thing, and although they feel that very strong personal connection, they do not take their relationship to a physical level. I love this movie for that reason. Instead of giving me a fantasy romance, Brief Encounter gives me a REAL romance. I know that many cinematic romances would never happen to me; something like Brief Encounter might, although I don’t necessarily want it to. The fact that it’s distinctly within the realm of possibility makes the tale much more beguiling.
So nerts to those who say the restraint dates the film. To me, the restraint is what makes it far more relatable.
While the sexual restraint between Laura and Alec is written into the script from Noel Coward’s play, David Lean manages to take the central relationship and portray it with tremendous soul. This is a movie with a very clear mood, one of melancholic nostalgia. Brief Encounter is rarely a happy film, instead feeling intense, passionate, and angst-ridden. For me, that effect is achieved primarily through the use of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto as the soundtrack. Rachmaninoff and I have a very intense relationship. In my freshman year of college, I was going through a rough patch, and I would go to the library in between classes, sit in the stalls, and write in a journal while I listened to Beethoven’s symphonies and Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. The sadness and passion and anger of Rachmaninoff spoke to me in a way many other composers (save Beethoven) did not. If ever I feel the need for a little aural soul-searching, I still reach for either Rach or lovely lovely Ludwig van. When Rach’s 2nd is used repeatedly in Brief Encounter, I am aware of it each and every time, and each and every time, it makes me feel the passion and sadness between the two main characters. You want an angsty relationship? Use angsty classical music. Rachmaninoff is nothing if not angsty, but so help me, I adore it.
The performances of Johnson and Howard are wonderful as Laura and Alec. I love that this is a romance between two middle-aged people, and the casting reflects that. Celia Johnson is very pretty, but not gorgeous. She has beautiful wide eyes, but you can see the wrinkles in her forehead and around those limpid eyes. Trevor Howard is handsome, but not a heartthrob. He too shows signs of age. Both are dressed quite normally, not especially smart or slick. These are two terrifically common middle-aged, middle-class folks, and watching Johnson in particular (after all, this is Laura’s story, Laura’s flashback) is heartbreaking and wonderful. This is a very adult romance, in the non-pornographic sense of the word. These are not teenagers falling in love, these are parents. They act like it, and not like silly children.
The use of Laura’s narration, as she confesses not only her feelings for Alec but also her rather biting true thoughts about her silly friends and her sedate and perhaps dull life, gives us tremendous insight into her life. Perhaps that is, ultimately, the reason for the great fondness I have for this film. Laura admits things, and not just romantic things. She sees someone she does not want to talk to and she hides. She looks at her husband and knows that she loves him, but not in nearly the same way she loves Alec. She admits things that it is hard to admit. Despite the fact that this film is nearly seventy years old, the shockingly honest inner monologue of Laura’s remains unique.
Perhaps by feeling so strongly in favor of this film, I am admitting to being a bit stuffy and stodgy and uptight myself. Perhaps. If I am, then that’s me, and I’m at a point in my life where I am accepting myself for who I am. And I like this film because it’s sadly romantic but in a real world way. If two married people met and fell in love, and they were both sensible, yeah, they’d have emotional angsty problems with the fact of their affair. That is precisely what happens here. That is precisely what one doesn’t see in other movies. Laura’s husband doesn’t conveniently disappear; in point of fact, he significantly closes the film.
I’ve seen this film several times, I know how it ends, but still, the ending managed to bring a tear to my eye. And dammit, that’s a great film.
Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10 (And remember, if it weren’t for Brief Encounter, we would not have The Apartment.)