Its starts with the horn from the sound of an incoming train. In the dining refreshment room of the railway station there are two people sitting together without words but there facial expressions say it all. Both are happily married, in their mid-thirties and each have two children. They are waiting for the sad and final parting because the man has been offered a job in South Africa where his brother lives, and they are waiting for his train to arrive. Their last few moments of silence is sadly interrupted by a gossip talkative acquaintance of the woman named Dolly Messiter, and she rudely invites herself to their table chatting away and totally oblivious to the two's inner misery. As they realise they have been robbed for a final chance of a goodbye, the man's train arrives and he has to leave without making their relationship look to suspicious. The last subtle show of affection he can give the woman is his hand slightly squeezing her shoulder as he finally leaves the table to get aboard his train. When hearing the train slowly pull away the woman suddenly gets up and leaves the refreshment room dashing outside. When coming back in she sits back down and Dolly Messiter asks her if she known that man long and the woman says, "No, not very long...I hardly know him at all, really." Brief Encounter was the fourth and final film that the legendary British director David Lean made in association with Noel Coward. The film was based on a play titled Still Life which tells the story of a suburban housewife who by chance meets a doctor and they start having a secret love affair. [fsbProduct product_id='746' size='200' align='right']It's quite odd that when the film was first released it wasn't threatened with censorship, not even in America by the Legion of Decency when the film suggests such controversial themes as an adulterous affair, and even attempted suicide. But that was far from Lean’s mind when the film had its first preview in Rochester when the film got laughs from the audience. Lean stated, "I remember going back to the hotel and lying in bed, almost in tears, thinking, How can I get into the laboratory and burn the negative? I was so ashamed of it.” But after Rochester, the film opened more widely, and a miracle happened. The public embraced it, people went to see it again and again, and it broke box-office records. In New York, it ran for eight months, and Johnson was not only voted best actress by the New York critics, she was nominated for an Oscar, along with the director and screen-writer. Thus began the beginning of a romantic classic, and one of the most fondly remembered British films of all time. Brief Encounter is a tragic and heartbreaking story that portrays a doomed love affair with flawed but human characters who are trapped within a repressive social system, with many critics labeling Brief Encounter as the British Casablanca. When first released some critics looked at Brief Encounter as slightly old-fashioned and yet seen today it is now labeled as one of the greatest romantic films of all time, and in many ways a dream of England a long time ago...
Its starts with the horn from the sound of an incoming train. In the dining refreshment room of the railway station there are two people sitting together without words but there facial expressions say it all.
Both are happily married, in their mid-thirties and each have two children. They are waiting for the sad and final parting because the man has been offered a job in South Africa where his brother lives, and they are waiting for his train to arrive.
Their last few moments of silence is sadly interrupted by a gossip talkative acquaintance of the woman named Dolly Messiter, and she rudely invites herself to their table chatting away and totally oblivious to the two's inner misery.
As they realise they have been robbed for a final chance of a goodbye, the man's train arrives and he has to leave without making their relationship look to suspicious. The last subtle show of affection he can give the woman is his hand slightly squeezing her shoulder as he finally leaves the table to get aboard his train.
When hearing the train slowly pull away the woman suddenly gets up and leaves the refreshment room running outside. When coming back in she sits back down and Dolly Messiter asks her if she known that man long and the woman says, "No, not very long...I hardly know him at all, really."
As Dolly Messiter starts chatting away again her voice fades out as you hear the woman thinking: "I wish I could trust you. I wish you were a wise, kind friend instead of a gossiping acquaintance I've known casually for years...and never particularly cared for. I wish...I wish...I wish you'd stop talking. I wish you'd stop prying, trying to find things out. I wish you were dead. No, I don't mean that. That was silly and unkind, but I wish you'd stop talking. This can't last. This misery can't last. Nothing lasts, really...neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There'll comes a time in the future when I shan't mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no...I don't want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute...always...always to the end of my days..."
Later that evening the woman finally goes home to her family. Her name is Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) a happily married woman with two kids. When she comes home her husband Fred tells her that the two children have been fighting. She goes up stairs to her children's bedroom to solve her children's quarrel. At dinner with her husband Fred starts discussing their children and Laura suddenly starts sobbing.
"What's on earth's the matter," her husband asks her. "Really and truly it's nothing. I'm just a little rundown that's all. I had a sort of fainting spell at the refreshment room at Milford." Her husband offers for her to relax by the fire-place so she hopefully feels better. While relaxing her husband asks her a question on a crossword puzzle he is working on in the paper. Laura puts on some music and starts sowing as she looks at her husband and starts narrating what she is thinking to herself again.
"Fred, dear Fred. There's so much I want to say to you. You're the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand. If only it was somebody else's story and not mine. As it is, you're the only one in the world that I can never tell. Never...never. Because even if I waited until we were old and told you then...you'd be bound to look back over the years and be hurt. And my dear, I don't want you to be hurt. You see, we are a happily married couple and let's never forget that. This is my home. You're my husband. And my children are upstairs in bed. I'm a happily married woman - or I was, rather, until a few weeks ago. This is my whole world...and it's enough, or rather, it was until a few weeks ago. But, oh, Fred, I've been so foolish. I've fallen in love. I'm an ordinary woman. I didn't think such violent things could happen to ordinary people. It all started on an ordinary day, in the most ordinary place in the world...the refreshment room at Milford Junction..."
The story then flashes back to a few weeks ago when Laura was reading a book in the refreshment room of the train station. Brief Encounter starts as a brief accident. When Laura's train is about to arrive she leaves the refreshment room and stands on the edge of the platform.
Suddenly as the train passes by a piece of grit flies and gets caught in her eye. She rushes back into the refreshment room and asks for a glass of water. A man walks up and asks if he can help her. He says, "please let me look, I happen to be a doctor." Once he helps her get the grit out of her eye she thanks him and he leaves to catch his train.
Their first meeting here is short and results around a thanks and a goodbye with neither of them thinking too much about the incident and it not meaning anything at all. The very next Thursday they run into each other again out on the street.
He asks her how her eye is and she thanks him for taking the trouble in helping her that last week. They quickly chat about simple things like the weather and they both go on their separate ways once again. Laura heads up to the train station that evening and she wonders if that doctor is there; then it quickly passes.
The next Thursday she goes to the Kardomah for lunch and the restaurant is full. Suddenly she sees the doctor come in and he realizes there is no where for him to sit. She says "good morning" and he asks if she's alone and if he can sit at her table. He then says, "I'm afraid we haven't been introduced properly. My name's Alec Harvey." She says her names Laura Jesson and they chat with her learning he is an ordinary local doctor.
Enjoying each other's company, she tells him how she routinely goes shopping and comes here every Thursday and then goes to the pictures. He asks her if she's going to the pictures today and she says she is. He then asks if he could come along and join her since he already finished most of his work up at the office. Before leaving the waitress accidentally put the bill on one and Alec insists on paying for it. He even offers to pay for the movie even though she insists.
After enjoying the picture they talk about their husbands and wives and Alec tells her why he wanted to be a doctor. They both decide to have some tea at the train station before each heading home.
When Alec starts going on about his idealistic passion for his work you can see Laura is entranced by his love for what he does and is very interested in what he studies. Alec's train comes and she notices somethings the matter. Alec then says, "shall I see you again. Please. Next Thursday the same time." She hesitates on the idea and right before he leaves she says, "I'll be there."
When Laura arrives back home to Ketchworth she thinks how silly and undignified it was to flirt with a complete stranger and tells herself she won't meet Alec again.
When she arrives home she finds out from her husband that her son was hit by a car and has a slight concussion. She runs up stairs to see her son; feeling the whole thing was her fault and that what happened to her son was a warning or a punishment on her for earlier going out with a complete stranger.
That evening with her husband Laura tells him she went to the pictures with a strange man; a doctor. To her surprise it doesn't seem to bother her husband and he just asks if she had a good time or not; in which she starts to laugh at herself about how silly she made the whole situation out to be and how it really wasn't anything.
When the next Thursday came she went to meet Alec at the Kardomah to keep her promise; more as a matter of politeness than for any other reason. While waiting for him she realizes he doesn't show up and then gets up and leaves. After passing by the hospital she looks up wondering if he was in there or if something terrible had happened for why he didn't show up.
Arriving at the train station after the pictures; she sits down to have a cup of coffee. When Laura walks out on the platform and sees the train that Alec usually takes home pass by she suddenly starts feeling panic-stricken on the thought of not seeing him again.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the film Laura sees Alec running out to her from the shadows of the tunnel and apologizing about not showing up and how there was no way of letting her know. He now has to catch his train before it leaves and says to her, "I'm so glad I had a chance to explain. I didn't think I'd see you again. Next Thursday?" She happily shouts to him "Yes! Next Thursday! Good-bye! Good-bye!!"
They meet up that next Thursday and go to the movies again and then head to the Botanical Gardens and go on a boat ride on the lake laughing hysterically when Alec gets wet. Later on that afternoon they are laughing having coffee and they then suddenly get very quite; and Alec tell her what they both are thinking.
"You know what's happened, don't you?"
"Yes, yes I do."
"I have fallen in love with you. Tell me honestly...that it's the same with you."
"It sounds so silly."
"I know you so little."
"It is true, though, isn't it?"
"Yes...its true. We must be sensible. Please help me to be sensible. We mustn't behave like this. We must forget that we've said what we've said."
"Not yet...not quite yet. Listen, it's too late now to be as sensible as all that. It's too late to forget what we've said, and anyway, whether we'd said it or not couldn't have mattered. We know. We've both of us known for a long time."
"How can you say that? I've only known you for four weeks. We only talked for the first time last Thursday."
"Has it been a long time for you since then? Answer me...truly."
"How often did you decide that you were never going to see me again?"
"Several times a day."
"So did I. I love you. I love your wide eyes, the way you smile, your shyness, and the way you laugh at my jokes."
"I love you. I love you. You love me too. It's no use pretending it hasn't happened cause it has."
"Yes it has. I don't want to pretend anything either to you or to anyone else. But from now on, I shall have to. That's what's wrong. Don't you see? That's what spoils everything. That's why we must stop, here and now, talking like this. We're neither of us free to love each other. There's too much in the way. There's still time...if we control ourselves and behave like sensible human beings. There's still time."
Laura walks Alec to his train platform and before he boards he pushes her into the shadows and says, "I love you so" and kisses her in the dark. When heading home Laura feels so wildly happy like an excited schoolgirl.
While staring out of the window of the train she imagines her and Alec very much in love dancing in Paris and Venice; in love and happy traveling to all the places she always wanted to go. Right when arriving back home to Ketchworth all her dreams fade and disappear.
When home that evening her husband asks her what she did for the day. For the first time Laura lies to her husband and says she went out with a girlfriend of hers named Mary. After he leaves the room she can't believe what she has done and quickly calls her friend Mary and asks her to back her up in the lie she made to her husband; of course by lying to her as well.
That next afternoon Alec and Laura go out for lunch and Laura suddenly runs into two acquaintances of hers. When they approach her and question who she's with Laura lies and says an old friend of hers that she knew for years. Later that day Alec knows something is bothering Laura and says to her, "It isn't worth it. That the furtiveness and lying outweight the happiness we might have together."
When she reassures him that she does love him they kiss and later Alec suggests she comes up to a friends flat; while his friend Stephen is out for the evening. She refuses and while they are walking to the train station Alec says, "I'm going back...to Stephen's flat. I'm going to miss my train." Laura still refuses to go and leaves heading back to the train station by herself. When her train arrives she boards it but before it takes off she quickly gets off; and goes to Stephen's flat to see Alec.
He lets her in and they embrace each other and kiss when suddenly his friend Stephen comes back unexpectedly. Stephen realizes Alec snuck a woman up to his apartment and asks him for his latch key back and is disappointed in Alec's behavior.
Laura is embarrassed and ashamed at what she has done and runs back to the train station in the rain. She decides to walk for a while until she is calm enough to return home. When resting at the refreshment room Alec comes in saying how he has been looking all over for her.
The both of them realize that they can't keep sneaking around like this and know that to continue on with this affair would be disastrous for the both of them and could eventually destroy their families. Laura thinks it's better if they don't see each other again and Alec says to her, "Could you really say goodbye? Never see me again?" Laura replies, "Yes, if you'd help me." Alec soon agrees with Laura. "I love you, Laura. I shall love you always until the end of my life. I can't look at you now cause I know something. I know that this is the beginning of the end. Not the end of my loving you but the end of our being together. But not quite yet, darling. Please...Not quite yet."
Alec then tells her he's going away and got offered a job in South Africa and that he originally wasn't going to take it because he didn't want to leave her; but now he knows it has to happen because it's the only way out for the both of them. Before he leaves Alec wants to see Laura one last time next Thursday and wants to spend one more day together.
When their sad but inevitable final parting happens again that we see for the second time and now with the poignant perspective of their story it makes us as an audience feel differently with these characters.
While in the train station refreshment room waiting for Alec's train; Alec tells Laura, "I do love you, so very much. I love you with all my heart and soul." Laura then replies by saying, "I want to die. If only I could die... " Alec smiles and says, "If you'd die, you'd forget me. I want to be remembered."
Suddenly Dolly Messiter butts in and invites herself at the table and destroys the last few tender moments they could have had with each other.
When Alec's train arrives he leaves and as the train starts to pull away Laura suddenly gets up and rushes out onto the platform and for a moment has an impulse to jump in front of the train to commit suicide; but quickly pulls back.
When her flashback ends as she's sitting in the living room with her husband he notices that she appears distressed.
The last scene between husband and wife always brings tears to my eyes. "Laura, you've been a long way away," her husband says. He asks if he can do anything to help. He then states, "Thank you for coming back to me."
The mysterious letter was signed “Joe.” David Lean’s lawyer had sent me a batch of old correspondence. Struggling with a biography of Lean, I was desperate for any leads, and this one seemed worth following up. But how does one start looking for a bloke called Joe? I wrote to the address on the letter. A few days later came a reply. “Joe” Kirby was not a bloke. She had been one of David’s girlfriends. Sadly, Josephine Kirby had died in 1979. Her son, John Clay, the writer, suggested I pay him a visit. He explained that she had never mentioned David Lean to either of her two sons but that she had talked a great deal about him to his wife, Catrine.
“She always said, ‘He was the love of my life, and I never got over it,’” Catrine recounted. Jo Kirby came from Cheshire, and in 1935 David took her on a romantic trip to Italy. The affair was short-lived. Later that year, he ended the relationship. She was on a train, on her way back to Cheshire with a new fiancé, but couldn’t bear the thought of life without David. She got off the train and caught the next one to London.
This scene, so similar to the one played by Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (1945), evokes the powerful link between railways and love affairs. One needs only to hear the slamming of doors and the guard’s whistle to feel the heartache of parting. Dramatically, Jo’s impulsiveness should have brought about a reconciliation, but it didn’t. “She knew in her heart of hearts that it would never have worked,” said Catrine. “He was just too interested in other women, and she had the feeling that he just never would be faithful. She was dead right about him, but I don’t think being dead right makes much difference to how you feel.”
Handsome and charismatic, Lean was irresistibly attractive to women. He could have made film after film about successful seduction. How ironic it is that one of his finest and best-loved pictures should be about a repressed love affair. “Riskiest thing I ever did,” he said.
He was afraid the film would turn out to be little more than a women’s magazine trifle. “There were no big stars,” he wrote. “The main love story had an unhappy ending. The film was played in unglamorous surroundings. And the three leading characters were approaching middle age. A few years ago, that would have been a recipe for box-office disaster.” In those days, glamour and escapism had been what the cinema was for. But, with the war now ending, these were different times.
Lean would never feel confident with love stories. And at this point in his career, he was still regarded in the industry as a technician, albeit of the front rank; nothing suggested he would be an artist—a Cukor or Wyler of the future. He spoke of himself as “a frightened rabbit,” and directing films scared the life out of him. He had started as an editor and was being propelled into directing by Noël Coward (and the urging of his wife, Kay Walsh). They’d made three films together before this one, In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), and Blithe Spirit (1945), with Coward as overall artistic supervisor. How much of the success of This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit had been due to the Coward plays? Lean would never forget the harsh words his mentor had used about Blithe Spirit—making him want to break away—so he was hardly in a state of euphoria at the prospect of another project with Coward. But to his intense surprise, he enjoyed making Brief Encounter, and even found himself in tears shooting the emotional moments.
The man who wrote it with such insight as a play was homosexual, and there is an unfounded rumor that it was intended to be performed by men. Perhaps its being so far from these artists’ experiences led them to use their powers of observation in an unusually formidable way. The background suited Lean’s love of railways—a Lean film is incomplete without a locomotive—and the opening scene, with the Royal Scot roaring through Carnforth station, filling the screen with backlit smoke and bringing up both the main titles and the Rachmaninoff, is a heart-stopping moment.
Robert Krasker, who had been a camera operator for Alexander Korda on The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and was fairly new as a director of photography, lights the picture in the standard studio style of the time. But some of the night exteriors suggest an admiration for the silent-era expressionism of Germany, where Krasker studied optics, and anticipate The Third Man (1949), for which he would win an Academy Award. Working with such a versatile artist encouraged Lean to experiment; watch the moments when the camera tracks into Johnson and the background fades to black, against all the rules of reality. And when the express screams through the station, triggering her moment of madness, the camera not only tracks into her but tilts (à la The Third Man).
Johnson speaks with that cut-glass accent so familiar before the war but now almost vanished, which could easily cause laughter today. Fortunately, she is such a skillful actress that her character—Coward called her “suburban”—comes across as a convincing and very touching woman. Coward was obsessed with class; the dialogue in the refreshment room between the “refained” Joyce Carey and the good old cockney Stanley Holloway is entertaining but forced, whereas the exchanges between the couple all ring true. Lean disliked the comedy scenes, but as producer Anthony Havelock-Allan pointed out, Coward was a skillful theater writer who knew that the story would be intolerably sad without them.
Lean and his Cineguild colleagues Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame—who worked on all the Lean-Coward projects—had wanted to do a historical romance about Mary, Queen of Scots, but were laughed out of it by Coward (“What do you know about costumes?”). Lean read Coward’s short play Still Life and summoned up the nerve to declare that it wasn’t very good. “This woman arrives at a railway station and gets some soot in her eye, meets this man, and they arrange to meet next Thursday, and it goes on, and in the end they part. It’s got no surprises in it. You’re not saying to the audience, ‘Watch carefully. This is interesting.’” Lean suggested starting like this: “A busy waiting room. There are two people sitting at a table, talking, a man and a woman. Through the door comes another woman, who sits down at the table. As she sits, talking and talking, you realize there’s something not quite right going on, and a train comes into the station. ‘That’s your train,’ says the woman. ‘Yes,’ says the man, ‘I must go. Good-bye.’ He shakes hands with the other woman, and then you go back and explain that this is the last time they see each other. They were never going to see each other again. And you play once more the first scene in the picture—it made no sense to you at all, and you didn’t hear half the dialogue—and that’s the end of the film, with an added piece, perhaps, with the husband.
“[Coward] said, ‘Say no more,’ and off he went, for about four days, and he came back with what was essentially Brief Encounter.”
Havelock-Allan, however, insisted that Coward wrote none of the script. “The script was written by David and myself and Ronnie. You realize that Still Life was a half-hour playlet which takes place entirely in the waiting room of a station. We had to invent scenes that were not there. And there were lots of places where there was no dialogue. We said, ‘Could they go for a row in the lake? Could they go to the cinema?’ Noël said, ‘Only if they go to a bad film.’”
Neame recounted how the Cineguild trio had learned to write like Coward. “We all knew pretty well the way Noël wrote, and so we would fill in scenes. We would put stand-in dialogue until we saw Noël, and I remember on one occasion he said, ‘Which of my little darlings wrote this brilliant Coward dialogue?’”
With the world in such turmoil, Brief Encounter must have seemed a very frail subject on which to expend so many valuable resources. The Blitz was over, but in 1944 a second Blitz began when Hitler launched his secret weapon—the V-1 rocket-launched bomb. The Brief Encounter company were regarded as official evacuees. They had originally been assigned a London railway station for the main location, but Carnforth was safer, being so much farther north, even though large quantities of munitions were regularly routed through it.
Modern audiences are often puzzled by the fact that this famous wartime film shows no sign of the war—lights are blazing, trains run on time, chocolate is purchased without coupons. But Still Life was written in 1935, and the film is set in the late thirties. The reason Lean put up with Johnson’s outlandish peaked hat was to signal both the date and the fact that she was meant to be provincial.
The winter of 1944–45 was bitterly cold. When they weren’t needed, the actors huddled in the waiting room, where the stationmaster maintained a roaring fire. “You’d think there could be nothing more dreary than spending ten hours on a railway station platform every night,” wrote Johnson to her husband, “but we do the whole thing in the acme of luxury and sit drinking occasional brandies and rushing out now and then to see the expresses roaring through.” However, she confessed to appalling nerves over the responsibility of “carrying” the film. “I am scared stiff of the film and get first-night indijaggers before every shot, but perhaps I’ll get over that. You need to be a star of the silent screen because there’s such a lot of stuff with commentary over it. It’s terribly difficult to do.”
Celia Johnson was among Lean’s favorite actors. He also admired Trevor Howard, whose first major part this was. But he was startled when Howard claimed not to understand the scene in the borrowed flat, with its talk of the weather and the fact that the couple didn’t go to bed. Howard said, “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? All this talk about the wood being damp and that sort of stuff.” Hadn’t he ever been with a girl, convinced they would be making love, asked Lean, and once the door’s shut, a kind of embarrassment takes over? “Oh, God,” said Howard. “You are a funny chap.”
It is strange that the film was not threatened with censorship, not even in America, where the Legion of Decency might well have reacted to the adulterous affair and the suggestion of suicide, even though neither is consummated. But that was far from Lean’s mind when the film had its first preview. Rochester was a foolhardy place to choose because it was right next to Chatham Dockyard, and the cinema was packed with sailors. “At the first love scene,” said Lean, “one woman down the front started to laugh—I’ll never forget it. At the second love scene, it got worse. And then the audience caught on and waited for her to laugh, and it ended in an absolute shambles. They were rolling in the aisles. I remember going back to the hotel and lying in bed, almost in tears, thinking, How can I get into the laboratory and burn the negative? I was so ashamed of it.”
But after Rochester, the film opened more widely, and a miracle happened. The public embraced it, people went to see it again and again, and it broke box-office records. In New York, it ran for eight months, and Johnson was not only voted best actress by the New York critics, she was nominated for an Oscar. David became the first director of a British film since Korda to be nominated, and he, Neame, and Havelock-Allan were also nominated for the screenplay.
Thus began the career of a classic, one of the most celebrated and fondly remembered of all British films. Brief Encounter had been transformed from a clever but minor play into a fine, cinematic film. Lean had acquired so much self-confidence that he was keen to break away from Coward, much as he loved and admired him.
“When David left Noël,” said Kay Walsh, “Noël was magnificent. He could have said, ‘I’ve done all this for you and put you on the map.’ He did no such thing. He understood that this was a man who didn’t want to put the camera in the stalls”—he wanted to break out on his own, and away from the theater. “David more or less indicated that he was trapped, and he was right. Noël set him free.”
Brief Encounter was the fourth and final film that David Lean made in association with Noël Coward. Derived from Still Life, a one-act play which Coward included in the portmanteau Tonight 8:30, the story tells of a suburban housewife, Laura Jesson, who by chance meets a doctor, Alec Harvey, at the end of one of her weekly shopping trips to town. As she stands on the platform waiting for her train, an express roars past and throws a piece of grit into her eye, which Alec removes. They meet again the following week; they then go rowing on the lake, visit the cinema, and go driving in the country. They are obviously deeply in love, longing to consummate their relationship, but torn by guilt.
Lean begins at the end and slowly introduces an intricate series of flashbacks, which are narrated by Laura. It is her story, but what sort of story is it? On its initial release, Brief Encounter was hailed as a groundbreaking piece of realism and, to be sure, the performances by Trevor Howard (in his first starring role) and Celia Johnson are exquisitely judged, their actions entirely plausible. They are not “movie people,” and the world they live in is resolutely ordinary.
The emphasis on the “realism” of Brief Encounter caused it to go from success on release to an object of derision in the ’60s. Films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning regularly featured working-class adulterers, and a few years later, films such as Tom Jones, the 007 escapades, and The Knack espoused sexual liberation and casual sexual encounters. One critic defined the message of Brief Encounter as “Make tea, not love,” and recalled how an art-house audience in 1965 jeered at Alec and Laura’s middle-class torments.
In more recent years, the emergence of a less promiscuous sexual climate, together with a critical rehabilitation of Lean, has turned Brief Encounter into a much-loved classic. It is perhaps the British Casablanca, and has been similarly parodied. A long-running TV advertisement restaged the parting of Alec and Laura at the railway station; a film student made a short entitled Flames of Passion, the trailer of which Alec and Laura see at the cinema; and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto can always be relied upon to evoke not only Lean’s film but an entire set of emotional values. In the northern town of Carnforth where the film was made (the wartime black-out made filming in Southern England impossible), there are even Brief Encounter tours. In America, Brief Encounter was the subject of a sketch by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whilst Billy Wilder found Alec’s friend, who loans the flat, so interesting that he made an entire film about just such a character: The Apartment.
But perhaps a more fruitful approach is to assume that the film’s theme is not realism, but delirium—the word that fits with “romance” in Laura’s husband’s crossword. Laura’s house, the station buffet (where the manager and the guard indulge in an imagined affair of their own), and other interiors are oppressively dreary; the way Lean photographs meetings in the dark and shadowy station passageways, where Alec steals a furtive look, irresistibly conjures film noir and its associations with doomed love and characters trapped within a repressive social system.
Brief Encounter is also the principal link between the small-scale films of Lean’s early career with the widescreen epics of his final phase. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India each have central characters who are prone to a dreamy romanticism which borders on hysteria and hallucination. Look at Miss Quested (Judy Davis) at the end of A Passage to India, after her fantasy of rape in the Marabar Caves, and look at Laura at the end of Brief Encounter: they are the same person. As Laura’s husband does his crossword, Laura does her embroidery and conjures up this handsome doctor and overlays her fantasy with Rachmaninoff, the music coloring the inner life of this outwardly monochrome heroine.
“You’ve been a long way away,” says Laura’s husband at the end. And she has. “I believe we should all behave quite differently in a warm climate,” she says to Alec after he announces his intended move to Africa. Condemning Laura to a life of conformity and emotional suppression, Lean sets his own course towards the far horizon, where the English go out in the midday sun. Brief Encounter is not only Lean’s finest statement on the suffocating world into which he was born; it is also his train ticket out. Seen today, Brief Encounter is perhaps, quite literally, a dream of England long ago. And if aspects of it have entered the mythology and cliché of the British cinema, more than enough remains in this complex film to move and fascinate us still. Indeed, one famous British columnist and wit, Cyril Connolly, suggested that Alec was not a doctor at all but a mental patient who, allowed out of hospital once a week, preyed on solitary women. Now, there’s a thought!
Brief Encounter is one of the most haunting romantic films I have ever seen. I love how it portrays the characters as real, human and flawed, vulnerable people who are only looking to love and to be loved by another human being. Most films that show people who commit adultery are usually portrayed as slimy, selfish or immoral characters. Or they show them as victims of horrible relationships so you can understand the happiness and love that they are trying to reach out to others for.
But this film is different. Laura comes from a loving home with a caring husband and two loving wonderful children. She deeply cares about her husband, home and family and hates herself for developing romantic feelings to another person and holds much guilt because of it. Her husband does seem a little dull, going to work and then coming home and doing his crossword puzzles by the fireplace. But marriage isn't always the exciting glamorous romance that is portrayed in the movies, and it can get very solemn and routine. Alec, although his personal life isn't shown as in detail as Laura's also seems to be happy with his wife and family.
I find it interesting is that the scene of Alec using his friend's apartment to sneak a married woman in brought upon an idea of Billy Wilder when watching this film to write the story of The Apartment. The Apartment is more of a social comedy about a man who lends his apartment key out to his married bosses so they can use his apartment for their secret affairs. I just find it amazing how one classic film can give an artist an idea to create another classic film.
Brief Encounter is a story that portrays a doomed love and characters trapped within a repressive social system and with its shots of dark and shadowy station passageways it also conjures up similar ideas of a noir film. Brief Encounter wasn't the first film to feature working class adulterers. Other films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tom Jones were also films that shared themes of love and sexual liberation. And yet Brief Encounter has a timeless and old-fashioned feel to it with some critics looking at it as the British Casablanca.
They're several powerful and emotional moments in this film. One of them is earlier in Laura and Alec's relationship when Laura promises to meet up with him. When Alec doesn't show up for their rendezvous, she starts to get panic stricken, now realizes she has grown feelings for him. Right before leaving on her train for home, Alec surprisingly arrives from the shadows running to apologize about not showing up and how there was no way of letting her know. This was the pivotal moment where the two realized they have true had feelings for another.
The other moment is near the end of the film, when the two lovers meet for the last time in the train station refreshment room waiting for Alec's train. Suddenly Dolly Messiter invites herself to the table and destroys the last few tender moments they could of had with each other, and when Alec's train arrives he leaves but not before giving Laura one last subtle show of affection he could by slightly squeezing her shoulder. When Alec's train is about to pull away Laura suddenly gets up and rushes out onto the platform and for a moment has an impulse to jump in front of the train to commit suicide; but quickly pulls back.
I personally believe you can love more than one person, just in different ways. I don't believe in that 'soul mate' or that 'one person in the world that's meant for you' hooey. I believe that you can find multiple people who you can share multiple feelings for but just in different ways. Who says I can't find someone I could love if I lived in Florence, Italy than I could here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? I'm not condoning infidelity I'm merely saying a person is able to feel strong feelings for more than one person in their lifetime, because we are all human. Yes, it is selfish for anyone to lie, and deceive the person you married and vowed to love until the end of your days, but life isn't that simple, and we aren't perfect.
Every human being has needs and desires that we feel the need to fulfill, and it is only natural that we seek out others always searching for emotional support and to love and be loved by another person. People within marriages sometimes fall out of love, or throughout the years the two slowly grow apart. Every single person is unique, have different needs, and their situations and the circumstances involved are all completely different. Life's too complicated and we as human beings are too complex to simply judge others on what is necessarily is right or wrong and good and bad. It is extremely difficult to find love but it's nearly impossible to find someone you love to love you back, and for the two of you to make it last.
I believe Brief Encounter to be one of the greatest British films ever made. The legendary British director David Lean has been known for his large-scale epic films like the great masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia which is based on the life of T. E. Lawrence, Bridge on the River Kwai which tells the story of a British colonel who co-operates to see his men's construction of a railway bridge while prisoner under a Japanese POW camp and Doctor Zhivago which is about a Russian doctor who falls for a political activist's wife during the Bolshevik Revolution. Sadly though his older films and smaller scale work isn't talked about as much as his later work and his earlier work is personally my favorite of the latter. Most of his earlier films were smaller simple stories, many Charles Dickens adaptations like his masterpiece Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. He also did a comedy of manners starring Charles Laughton called Hobson's Choice and a beautiful romance called Summertime with Katherine Hepburn. But its Brief Encounter and Great Expectations that are his early masterpieces that really showed his skill as one of the greatest British directors of our time next to the great team of Powell and Pressburger and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1999 Brief Encounter came second in the British Film Institute poll of the top 100 greatest British films right before Carol Reed's The Third Man. In 2004, Total Film named it the 44th greatest British film of all time. This film is one of the great romances but then again the characters never become officially romantic. It could have gone to that stage but they both held back their feelings and desires because of their love for their spouses and children. I don't really know if Laura's husband ever knew of her secret romance with Alec but the end of the film does question it. When her flashback ends as she's sitting in the living room with her husband he notices that she appears distressed. The last scene between husband and wife always brings tears to my eyes.
Laura, you've been a long way away."
"Whatever your dream was, it wasn't a happy one, was it?
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Yes Fred, you always help."
"Thank you for coming back to me."