Brief Encounter, made nearly 70 years ago, had a significant impact upon its initial release in cinemas. David Lean’s film about a married English couple that meet as strangers at a railway station and begin a short, unconsummated illicit love affair was praised for introducing a new level of realism into cinema, paving the way for many UK filmmakers working in the following decades. While mention of Lean’s name instantly conjures up thoughts of the sweeping epics he made on foreign shores, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge On The River Kwai, A Passage To India and Doctor Zhivago, the influence of Brief Encounter on the films being made in the UK that followed in its wake cannot be underestimated. Even though they appeared well over 15 years later and dealt with a different class, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar and A Kind Of Loving are all part of an ‘ordinary England’ lineage that began with Lean’s study of doomed romance.
Adapted from Noel Coward’s play Still Life, the film starts with the end of the relationship, a simple narrative device that is still being put to good use today (Hello (500) Days of Summer). We see Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) sitting at a table in a station cafe raking over the embers of their brief affair, before Lean gradually takes us back to its beginning with the first of many flashbacks. The majority of the rest of the film is played out this way, detailing the couple’s initial meeting at the same station – Jesson gets grit in her eye and Harvey removes it – and their subsequent weekly meet ups as they swiftly and helplessly fall in love.
Eventually, as their feelings for each other grow, the town they live in becomes ever more oppressive; when out together they are spotted by people they know, and despite one effort to sleep together they are ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts at adultery (their hopes dashed when a liaison at the flat owned by one of Harvey’s friends is interrupted by the owner’s unexpected early arrival home). Infidelity is the unthinkable option that lies before them throughout, the immovable object standing in the way of love’s irresistible force. When Harvey is offered a post as a doctor in a new hotel in South Africa, they are robbed of the one element that could actually help them make sense of their predicament: time.
As the town closes in on the couple in tandem with their rapidly-suffocating situation, the principle setting of a railway station reveals itself as an inspired choice – it is the one place that every town has which offers the promise of escape, but the couple are essentially trapped there by their respective marriages. Their weekly meetings end at the station, as Alec changes platforms to go to his family home one way and Laura heads off in the opposite direction. Only the station, with its constant flux of passengers, can provide them with a required level of secrecy, but it also serves as a constant reminder that they are unable to leave on a train together, and must always return to their respective abodes.
The two drink tea and eat iced buns in the often-crowded station cafe, where the film’s only subplot (involving a more cheeky, uncomplicated romance between the station guard Albert (Stanley Holloway) and cafe manageress Myrtle (Joyce Carey)) takes place simultaneously. Despite the presence of Albert and Myrtle, which definitely helps to alleviate the tense hand-wringing of the main characters, this is a film that firmly concentrates on the leading man and woman. While the subject matter is not simplistic, the film itself does feel stripped back in comparison with romances made today. Modern audiences on the whole apparently demand more keenly-developed supporting characters, plot twists, back stories, shifts in location and, crucially, happy endings. Brief Encounter is a simple story about a complicated affair: we see Laura’s husband and children on brief occasions, but neither Coward nor Lean seemed to be interested in developing them as characters and, having seen the end of the affair at the start, we already sense there will be no happy finale.
So this is England, 1940s-style. Not only that, this is middle-England in the 1940s, a place where divorce and infidelity were as shameful as knocking off a policeman’s helmet with a well-aimed catapult: a seriously frowned-upon disgrace. The wanton immorality of adultery was barely even discussed back then, making Coward’s play and Lean’s cinematic adaptation a real taboo-smasher. It may seem silly to us today, with our married-50-times-Elizabeth-Taylors and our 13-second-long-Britney-flings, but it must have been a real thrill – and a shock – for audiences to see this kind of behaviour on the silver screen, and to see a serious analysis of the very same suburbs that they themselves lived in. On the whole, filmmakers had previously thought of those places as being too dull to successfully serve the needs of paying customers that looked to the box office for escapism. Lean and Coward changed that perception.
For viewers that lived through the Second World War, Brief Encounter must offer a nostalgic look backwards, and for the many more born after the 1940s it has now become a valuable glimpse into the morality of the era. On top of that there’s also a wealth of visual information to submerse oneself in: while the settings are essentially ‘ordinary’, it’s still a real pleasure to let the eyes dart around the screen and take in some of the backdrops. In the station that might be something as minor as an advert for Watney’s ale or the products on sale on the counter top, but it’s also interesting to see the trains whizz past with steam billowing, and the carriages detail a level of comfort that has since been dispensed with in favour of the cram-’em-in functionality of the modern era. In a scene set in a cinema a Wurlitzer organ rises in front of the screen, and in a restaurant an all-female group entertains lunchtime diners, two long-forgotten staples briefly revealed. The film is also a sonic delight: the piercing whistle of the trains and the stationmaster puncture the dialogue at regular intervals, the score (Rachmaninov’s second concerto) is dramatic and works brilliantly with Laura’s woozy daydreams, and while the crisp, plummy accents seemed odd to these young(ish) ears they shouldn’t actually put anyone off and simply make you listen more attentively.
Coward and Lean worked together on four films, each of which are concerned to some extent with English reticence and repression. Brief Encounter, the last of these collaborations, has been described as the greatest romance ever made, despite being a film where romance’s bloom is cut down and left to whither away trackside within the first five minutes. With some inventive camerawork (particularly with regard to Laura’s daydreaming flashbacks and a couple of the same character’s rush-of-blood-to-the-head moments) and a willingness to boldly ask for an audience’s sympathy towards two main characters seemingly locked onto an adulterous course, it is a film that dared to examine something different and succeeded.
Directed by: David Lean
Written by: Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean, Ronald Neame
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard
Running Time: 86 minutes