Saturday Night Cinema: Brief Encounter (1945)

ByPamela Geller on January 30, 2016

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is Brief Encounters, an intense, brilliant romance directed by David Lean and starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson.

“Sheer perfection-the gold standard of tragic romances whose influence can still be seen to this day.”

“One of the most vivid, impassioned and painfully believable love stories ever committed to celluloid.”

brief encounter

NYT:  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.

Brief Encounter: the best romantic film of all time
David Lean, 1945
David Thomson, Guardian, 16 October 2010 06.54 EDT

In how many other countries would a poll pick Brief Encounter as the best movie romance of all time? Even in Britain, I wonder how many people born since, say, 1975 would rate it so highly. But for a generation that remembers when the trains ran on time and station buffets were as tidy and inviting as the one in this movie, Brief Encounter is etched in nostalgia for an era when trapped middle-class lives contemplated adultery but set the disturbing thought aside.

On the face of it, it would seem that Britain has changed; but is it possible that the David Lean-Noël Coward film is still the model for repressed feelings as an English ideal? We are accustomed to attributing films to directors, but it’s only proper to regard Coward as an equal author of this movie. He wrote the script, taking it from his own one-act play, Still Life. He made the leads “nice” people (Laura and Alec, a housewife and a doctor) and the supporting characters clear-cut English types – Stanley Holloway as the naughty, good-hearted station master and Joyce Carey as the bossy, buffet manageress, as well as Cyril Raymond who is quite exquisite as Laura’s husband, Fred, a decent dullard who senses that his wife has “been away” but cannot dream of what she has been up to or how close they have all come to disaster.

It is Coward’s preference, too, that family and stability are so respected in this film. Never married, and discreetly gay, Coward knew enough not to offend middle-class propriety. David Lean, on the other hand, was raised a strict Quaker and was always in rebellion against restraint – so he was married six times and, on his own, he might have pushed Laura and Alec a degree or two further than made Coward comfortable. If that sounds odd, you have to remember the extent to which Lean was Coward’s protege. The young editor had been noticed by Coward and promoted to help direct and then take over directing In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and finally Brief Encounter.

So the relationship that begins at the Milford railway station (it’s two metaphorical stops down the line from Borchester – The Archers began five years after Brief Encounter) with a piece of grit in Laura’s eye and Alec’s unquestionably clean handkerchief will lead to afternoons together, lunch and a visit to the cinema (their silly movie is called Flames of Passion), a country drive, and an awkward trip to a friend’s flat (the supercilious Valentine Dyall). Nothing happens, and Alec will soon take his family to a new job in South Africa – in 1945 that was still a destination of some hope.

“Nothing happens” is hardly a motto for movies today. But at the end of the second world war, when cinemas were packed, desire on the screen was fabulously (and sometimes hysterically) inflamed by self-denial, shyness and censorship. It’s an open question, of course, but consider the possibility that movie romance, and its dream of desire, were stimulated by the various controls that blocked abandon. Those devices include our innocence. In 1945, there wasn’t a hint of irony or parody in the film’s pounding Rachmaninov score (the second piano concerto, played to the hilt by Eileen Joyce).
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Today, the set-up begs for satire. But Brief Encounter has survived such threats, because it is so well made, because Laura’s voiceover narration is truly anguished and dreamy, because the music suckers all of us, and because Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are perfect. I realise, “perfect” seems dangerously prim and old-hat, an ultimate proof of hopeless gentility. But that’s not fair. Howard could be a wild man – as we know from his later work – and you feel recklessness and revolution as a wind tugging at him.
As for Celia Johnson, it is due largely to her that the film is still so moving. Her agony and her rapture stay interior, and they flip-flop like nerves in this beautiful, grave black-and-white movie. Her voice is measured but the eyes are desperate. That she holds the film together is beyond doubt.

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  • Fred

    Great choice Ms. Geller

    “Falling in Love” (1984) was a remake of Brief Encounter, starring Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. In the original the man and woman decide against breaking up two families and they both go their separate ways. In this remake, the man and woman display the modern thinking, that whatever one wants, they must get, no matter the cost to anyone else. Streep and DeNiro decide to selfishly destroy both marriages.

    • tom

      The dying West loves drek. There can’t be a happy ending.

  • Merchantseamen

    Pam it appears you are a sentimental old movie buff like myself. At 60 years old I tear up more that I ever did. The cookie cutter actors and actresses are just that. No depth. Be strong in God’s armor. God Bless.

  • Mark I.

    This was a very good movie, I saw it many years ago.