Pages Navigation Menu

Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Brief Encounter

brief_couple1

Director: David Lean
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1945

“My notion is that cinema was invented for Brief Encounter.”
Dan Talbot, founder of New Yorker Films

“There is not a breath of fresh air in it!”
Pauline Kael, in her review of Brief Encounter

Background

Lots to say about this week’s film, but I want to get this out of the way first… If you do a Google Image search for “Brief Encounter,” you will find a surprising number of photos like this one:

Nothing to do with the film itself; just thought I should warn you.

Let’s start with Noël Coward (1899-1973). According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Noël was “…equally at home as an actor, singer, and composer. He came to represent the typical brittle but witty sophisticate of the post-World War I generation.”

And by “brittle but witty sophisticate,” they, of course, mean “gay as a picnic basket.”

Gay and – given the era – permanently closeted. It seems a safe bet that Coward’s personal experience – of leading a double life, of squelching natural feelings in the face of societal disapproval – informed his 1936 play, Still Life. Set entirely in a railway station cafeteria, Still Life chronicles the furtive beginning and soul-crushing end of a never-consummated adulterous (almost-)affair between two Britons, who ultimately choose the numb despair of middle-class conformity over personal happiness.

In 1945, in collaboration with David Lean (below) and Ronald Neame, Coward expanded Still Life into a screenplay, which was re-titled Brief Encounter.

In my own personal History of Cinema, David Lean’s name is primarily associated with the large-scale films that he made later in his career: Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Passage to India. Recently, however, I watched two films from earlier in the Lean catalog – his excellent, noir-ish, never-surpassed adaptations of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. Even before those highlights, Lean was a well-regarded director of intimate melodramas, including this week’s Janus selection.

Brief Encounter is a quintessential example of what used to be called a “woman’s film.” Tear-stained melodramas like Mildred Pierce, All That Heaven Allows, and Madame X, these are stories of women’s dreams deferred or demolished, of women’s spirits crushed by the restrictions and demands of respectable society. The clipped understatement of the dialogue, the brittle humor, the class consciousness – and the fact that everybody is drinking tea – mark Brief Encounter as a classic wartime stiff upper lip British film, as well. Combine those two aesthetics of repression, and you wind up with a film that very nearly suffocates its two romantic leads.

Despite the fact that Alec (Trevor Howard) and Laura (Celia Jessup) never actually do the deed, Brief Encounter was scandalous in its time. A lifetime of heartbreak, disillusionment, and soul-devouring conformity was, apparently, not sufficient punishment for the brief walks in the park and cups of tea shared by the adulterous lovers; the film was denounced by clergy and banned in Ireland. The movie-going public was not so squeamish, however, and the film was enormously successful. It went on to share the 1946 Palm d’Or, and Celia Johnson was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1999, the British Film Institute conducted a poll of 1000 people from UK film and television, in order to compile a list of the Top 100 British Films of All Time. The Third Man (coming up later in the Janus set) won the top spot; Brief Encounter was second.

Synopsis

The film opens in a gloriously dismal train station at night. A train passes loudly, belching steam. In the cafeteria, we see Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) gloomily seated at a corner table. In stark contrast to their (middle class) stiffness, a jolly (working class) station attendant named Albert Godby bustles in and loudly chats up the sour-faced cafeteria lady Beryl, flirting and winking outrageously. As stipulated by British law, the first words out of his mouth are “‘allo ‘allo ‘allo!”

The pregnant silence at Laura and Alec’s table is soon disrupted by the arrival of Laura’s gossipy neighbor, Dolly Messiter, who remains oblivious to their adulterous discomfort while she yammers on and on about nothing in particular.

A voice on the intercom (played by Noël Coward!) announces the arrival of Alec’s train. He stands, places a hand on Laura’s shoulder, leaves it there for a beat longer than strictly necessary, and then leaves. Dolly orders some chocolate, and returns to the table to find Laura vanished. Not to worry, she was just out on the platform, getting a breath of fresh air… or so she claims.

On the ride home, Dolly questions Laura about her mysterious companion, and Laura mumbles non-committal replies, drifting further into her own troubled thoughts. “I wish I could trust you,” Dolly says in voice-over. “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 you would stop talking… I wish you would stop prying and trying to find things out…”

And finally: “I wish you were dead.”

“This can’t last,” Laura tells herself. “This misery can’t last… I must remember that, and try to control myself.”

Distraught, she returns home to her sweet but dull husband, who is preoccupied with his daily crossword puzzle. He asks her for a seven-letter word from a Keats poem. “‘Romance,’ I think,” replies Laura, helpfully. “It’ll be in the Oxford Book of English Verse.”

“No, I’m sure that’s it,” agrees Fred, her husband. “It fits in with ‘delirium’.”

ZING!

Later that evening, looking at herself in a mirror, Laura imagines a conversation she will never have: “Dear Fred; there’s so much that I want to say to you… We are a happily-married couple. I must never forget that… I’ve fallen in love. I didn’t think such violent things happened to such ordinary people.” The rest of the film is a flashback, as Laura recounts (in her mind) the story of her (almost-)unfaithfulness.

Rewind several weeks, and we are once again in the train station Refreshment Room. Laura is again waiting for her train, Mr. Godby is again putting the moves on the perpetually unimpressed Beryl. Suddenly, tragedy strikes as Laura gets a piece of grit in her eye! The working-class folk give her various uninformed medical advice, like “pull yer eyelid down, miss, and then blow yer nose, real solid-like!” but they are, as previously mentioned, working-class folk, and they do not know what they are talking about. Luckily, there happens to be a doctor in the house: the handsome, confident, and kind Dr. Alec Harvey, who makes quick work of that eye-grit. “That’s how it all began…” Laura tells us, in ominous (and completely unnecessary) voice-over.

“The next Thursday, I went into Milford as usual…” To nobody’s surprise, Laura and Alec bump into each other on the street, and laugh heartily about that humorous eye-grit episode. At the station that evening, Laura is surprised to find herself looking about eagerly, hoping to see Alec. One week later, they wind up sharing a table at a (different) cafÉ. More importantly, they wind up sharing a laugh at the expense of a horrible string quartet, and the die, as they say, is cast.

Enjoying the intoxicating buzz of a presumably harmless extramarital flirtation, Alec and Laura see a movie together. Before the main attraction, though, there is a preview: “Flames of Passion!” screams the title. “Coming Soon!”

Indeed.

Back in the Refreshment Room, Dr. Harvey tells Laura about his life’s passion: Preventive Medicine for Coal Miners. Yes, really. Having no dreams or interests of her own, Laura simply gazes at him lovingly. The music swells. As Alec boards his train, he turns. “Can I see you again? Next Thursday, the same time?” “I’ll be there,” answers Laura, thereby condemning herself to the fiery Circle of Hell reserved for Adulterous Harlots.

“…at that moment, the first awful feeling of danger swept over me.” Arriving at home, she finds that her son has been hit by a car, which she takes as a Warning from Almighty God. She resolves to tell her husband about Alec:

“Fred, I had lunch with a strange man today, and he took me to the movies.”

“Good for you, darling.”

“He’s a doctor.”

“A very noble profession.”

Clearly, Laura’s existential crisis remains unnoticed by the doltish Fred.

Two Thursdays later, Alec and Laura meet once again in Milford. They go to see the previously-advertised “Flames of Passion” but (FORESHADOWING!) walk out before it’s over. Instead, they spend the afternoon on a rented boat in the park. “I felt gay and happy and sort of released…” Laura imagines herself telling Fred. “That’s what’s so shameful about it all, that’s what would hurt you so much if you knew, that I could feel as intensely as that, away from you… with a stranger.”

Of course the boat crashes, much as their adulterous affair must.

“You know what’s happened, don’t you?” asks Alec. “Yes, yes, I do,” responds Laura, sadly.

“If we behave ourselves,” Laura protests, “behave like sensible human beings… there’s still time!” But we all know that it’s much too late for a happy ending.

As all adulterers must, Laura begins lying to cover her tracks: “I was with Mary Norton!” she says aloud, loathing herself. In voiceover: “…it started then, the shame of the whole thing, the guiltiness, the fear. How odd of you not to have noticed you were living with a stranger in the house.”

The next week, Alec and Laura take a drive in the country. Laura is despondent. That night, events conspire to place them alone in a friend’s apartment, away from prying eyes. “At last!” I said. “Finally!” I said. But it was not to be. The supposedly out-of-town friend returns (as they always seem to do, in my experience, and at the most inopportune moment), and Laura flees, horrified by her (near-)adultery, feeling like a criminal. She calls home and makes up another lie to explain her lateness. “It’s so very easy to lie when you know that you are trusted implicitly. So very easy… and so very degrading.”

Back at the train station, Alec re-appears. “I know this is the beginning of the end,” he tells Laura. “Not the end of my loving you, but the end of our being together… the feeling of guilt, of doing wrong, is too strong, isn’t it? Too great a price to pay for our happiness together.”

Alec reveals that he has decided to accept a job offer in Africa, where there are plenty of miners to study. “I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving you… but now I see it’s got to happen soon, anyway. It’s almost happening already.”

Despite all of this, Alec convinces Laura to see him one last time, on the following Thursday. In the background, Beryl and Mr. Godby banter and flirt in the rough way common to working-class folk.

On the following Thursday, Alec and Laura spend their last day together in heavy, doom-laden silence. As the day draws to its inevitable conclusion, Alec begs Laura to forgive him. “For what?” Laura asks.

“For everything. For meeting you, for taking the piece of grit out of your eye, for loving you… I do love you so very much. I love you with all my heart and soul.”

To which Laura responds: “I want to die.”

Then Dolly the gossip appears, and we’re back at the beginning of the film. “I felt the touch of his hand on my shoulder, and then he was gone, out of my life forever.” This time around, we find out what Laura was really doing out on the train platform: considering suicide.

Later, Laura sits at home, staring into space, with the twitchy eyes and furrowed brow of a lying adulteress. For the first time, and in direct contradiction to his character as depicted in the rest of the film, Fred notices that something is wrong and embraces her.

“Laura, whatever your dream was, it wasn’t a very happy one, was it? You’ve been a very long way away… thank you for coming back to me.”

Laura weeps inconsolably.

Ta Da! The Aristocrats!

What I Liked

The cinematography warrants particular mention, moving smoothly between realist scenes on the city streets, romantically-lit photography of the star-crossed lovers, and sudden jolts of expressionism. I love British trains and train stations, and all of the scenes in the Milford station (actually shot in the Carnforth station, in Lancashire) are beautiful, with murky shadows, surprising oases of light, and (melo-)dramatic bursts of steam.

As a side note, the Refreshment Room actually exists (though they recreated it in the studio for the film). Below, you can see the actress who played Beryl behind the counter of the real Refreshment Room:

Trevor Howard is excellent, underplaying his part precisely, every wrenching emotion written on his face and in his small gestures. The truth is, his character is a bit of a cad, but I absolutely sympathized with him every step of the way. ALSO: Even if you’ve never seen another British melodrama from the 1940’s, you may recognize Trevor Howard. As the First Elder in 1978’s Superman, he first pronounced judgment (“Guilty!”) on General Zod, then poo-pooed Jor-El’s concerns about their exploding sun.

The supporting performances, as in all British films of this period, are bloody fantastic. I particularly liked the push and pull between Mr. Godby and Beryl in the cafeteria, and Cyril Raymond is solid and sympathetic in the thankless role of Laura’s dull husband, Fred.

The brief scenes in Laura’s home brilliantly evoke the suffocation of British middle-class propriety. Laura’s husband isn’t a bad guy, and their marriage is not abusive in the conventional sense, but these scenes tell us quite economically and eloquently why Laura is going mad.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

To today’s more sophisticated moviegoer, weaned on films like Body Heat and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, Brief Encounter‘s depiction of an emotionally fraught, but ultimately chaste (and short-lived) illicit relationship will probably seem quaint, perhaps even unintentionally humorous. I’ll admit that some of the “tragic” scenes made me snicker, which I’m guessing was not the reaction hoped for by the screenwriters. That is no fault of the filmmakers’, however; the world has just changed too much in the years since this film was made. Today, the market is glutted with (possibly unrealistic) stories of self-actualization, stories of folks throwing off the shackles of bourgeois morality and finding their bliss. Watching Brief Encounter, I found myself shouting at the screen, “Oh, for chrisssake, stop the hand-wringing and GET JIGGY!” even though that is wildly at odds with my professed ethics. So there’s that.

My second complaint: I just didn’t like Celia Johnson as Laura. I don’t think she gave a “bad” performance, but I found her irritating; too tightly wound and shrill, with her eyes bugged out like she was fighting an urge to scream. In retrospect, this was probably intentional, and in keeping with the character of a stifled housewife headed for a nervous breakdown. Nonetheless: I found her performance exhausting to watch, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Dr. Harvey was pursuing her.

Should You See It?

If you like tragic romances where nobody gets what they want and everyone ends up crushed and eternally miserable (and I count myself in that category), then YES. If you love wartime British dramas, wet streets at night, train stations, cigarettes… then YES. If you have no patience for British reserve or the romanticization of heroic self-denial, then NO.

Next: The Fallen Idol

6 Comments

  1. I believe this was remade in the 1970s with Sophia Loren. The plot sounds similar to a film I saw when i was 7, i only saw the the part with the grit in the eye and the end though.

  2. Excellent Review/Commentary Theresa–

    If you haven’t found your “voice” – then you’re well on your way to finding it.

    Great piece and it’s nice that it lacks the snarky tongue-in-cheeck humorous spin that Jason (Admin) and I often put in our reviews.

    Looking forward to more…much more.

  3. [When I first began watching these movies, I decided ahead of time to not read the fifi background or reviews beforehand, for an “unadulterated” viewing experience. Afterward, I would read the fifi history and reviews, and then write my thoughts and impressions. Now I am doing my writing before I read anything on fifi. After watching but before writing, I am checking out IMBd and some other Googled web pages for a little bit of info, but I have no-where-nears the education that others here have. So forgive me my ignorance, if any, in what follows.]

    Why is this movie in the Janus Collection? I really thought it was a dud, and it sure doesn’t seem to be of the same historical importance in the film industry as the others we have so far watched. Perhaps it is important because showing such infidelity on the silver screen was extremely risque in 1946 England?

    The most interesting thing to me about this movie was how horribly retched the most beautiful Celia Johnson looked. She and the film scored a ten on conveying the awful price to be paid for betrayal. The story itself is an interesting exploration of the grey area between the black-and-white wrong and right, and how confused we can be when false passion clouds our eyes. In my opinion, these two “lovers” were not so much in love with each other as they were with the excitement of the naughtiness in which they were engaging.

    I’ve often thought that none of us has only one true soul mate, that there are many out there if we but choose to look for them, and that we can love almost anyone if we decide to do so. The confusion comes when we take our chosen mate for granted and begin to forget the promises we’ve made. If we use our vows as our compass (and I’m not referring only to church-and-state vows), we will never have any confusion in our choices, as there will never be any grey areas in which to get tripped up. Wrong is wrong and right is right.

    My two favorite scenes were:

    1) the scene between Alec and his colleague Stephen-with-the-very-bad-teeth (what is it with the British and their teeth?), at Stephen’s apartment, where he is first falsely sympathetic to Alec and gives him an excuse to have been seeing a woman there, but within a split second turns and shows his true disappointment in Alec; and

    2) the very last scene of the movie, in which Laura’s husband is glad that she has come back to him, and he is forgiving and loving.

    Despite my previously stated wrong-wrong/right-right conviction, we are all human and will all make less-than-admirable choices, and the bigger question may be how we respond to our loved ones (and ourselves) when they (and we) are the ones on the floor in a pile of grey.

    The importance of this film was probably that by putting it in front of the audience of the time, it got people talking about the taboo subject of female infidelity. Still, I was not convinced that the characters in this movie had a true conflict. In my opinion, this was not a remarkable film, and my first question stands unanswered.

    [After writing the above, I read the reviews already posted, and here is my two-cent response:

    Perhaps guys think gals are automatically always drawn to the “more exciting” chap, and sometimes the Indiana Joneses are the ones we do jones after. But for me, all throughout this movie, I had no patience with Laura for going ga-ga over Alec (who was definitely not an Indiana Jones). I was more drawn to the comfort of her life with hubby, Fred, than the superficial flirting she was doing with Alec. I loved the way Fred talked with Laura at the dinner table about solving the latest dilemma with the kids. He was clever and kept things in perspective. They spent their evenings together in companionship, working the crossword and doing handiwork. (He was at home, not working late or out carousing.) They had food on the table, a warm home, and nice clothes. And she was free to spend a day every week shopping in another town! What’s not to love?!? Sure, it’s not a life spent pursuing excitement, but in my experience in the last almost 50 years, drama comes unbidden into our lives often enough without us chasing after it. I was rooting for Fred the whole time.]

  4. What I liked about the bantering couple, and maybe I wasn’t clear in my critique but how their relationship (flirty, out-in-the-open, playful) counter-acted the relationship between Alec and Laura. But you are correct about the conversation and it makes more sense that we would not know anything about what was going on with Alec due to the fact that it’s HER story.

  5. Here’s what I know about Director David Lean. He makes HUGE films with large budgets, absurd lengths, thousands of actors and extras and when you sit down with a David Lean film…you better steel yourself for a four hour epic experience.

    When I saw that the next film was David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” – I thought to myself: “Uh, yeah, BRIEF…I’ll bet…” Then when it arrived from Netflix I was shocked to see that the film was less than 90 minutes long and, not only that, the cast was so small it could have been a stage play (actually it IS based on a stage play). Is THIS what Lean did before “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and “Passage to India” – well, of course, Duh! Still – for some reason I didn’t think that Mr. Lean had it in him. But that goes to show what happens when your film watching spans from “What’s Up Doc” to “Star Wars” with a few Disney films thrown in for good measure.

    Side comment. A few months ago I was watching a public domain film about a young couple about to start a life of crime. The film was made in the 1930’s when any film that showed a crime the criminals HAD to be punished at the end. No way anyone was getting away with ___________ (insert crime here). In this film a wise cop (or someone…it’s hard to remember) says to the couple: “Well, if you get arrested and thrown in jail…you won’t be able to get married.” And, suddenly, they look at each other with shock on their faces. I’m thinking…so? Live together! But, again, this was the 1930’s…and that just. Was. Not. Done.

    “BE” is a film about that shocking moment.

    Our story opens in a train station in England and we see two characters interacting quietly. One of those “busy-body types” comes wandering into the station and begins chatting up her friend. And when I say “chatting up” – I mean it’s a non-stop mile-a-minute amount of drivel coming out of this lady. Sadly, the man’s train needs to leave and he gets up, squeezes the other woman’s shoulder and he is gone. Within moments she is gone, too, only to return a moment later.

    What follows is a flashback to the past few weeks. The woman in the train station is Laura and she is in love with Dr. Alec – the man with the shoulder squeeze. Problem? Yes! Both Laura and Dr. Alec are married…though we don’t see the Dr.’s wife, we meet Laura’s husband early on and he’s one of those “wears ties around the house, smokes in the house, and does crossword puzzles.” Obviously he is a boring loser. And though they’ve had two kids I doubt they bump uglies any more as we see late in the film that they sleep in separate beds.

    Laura, who travels by train to go shopping every Thursday in a small town (and visit the library) meets Dr. Alec in a train station after getting something in her eye. They strike up a quick friendship and before you can say “bobsyeruncle” they’re going to see movies like “Forbidden Passion” and Donald Duck cartoons. Next thing you know…they’re in love.

    Now – even though the relationship isn’t really explored all that well – we do get the feeling that these people have fallen in love. After the first encounter, though, Laura readily admits to her crossword obsessed husband that she has met a man, a doctor and she’d like to invite him and his family over for dinner. Her husband says: “Sure, why not.” But…it never happens.

    As the visits together become more passionate Laura finds herself lying to her husband, lying to her friends. Making up stories and greatly falling apart. Since this isn’t a story about Dr. Alec – we never see or hear much of all the trials and tribulations HE’s going through. Proving, once again, that the woman is the one who has to bear all the guilt and shame.

    Kissing now on a regular basis – with trips to the country – I started wondering if and/or when this relationship was going to kick it up a notch. In other words…when were they going to cross the bedroom line and finally consummate this love affair? It was still all pretty chaste up to this point and could be dismissed away as a moment of weakness or passion but once they cross the sheets…then what?

    Finally Dr. Alec confides in Laura that he has the key to a friend’s “flat” for the night and he was going to be hanging out there. “Key to a friend’s flat” must be 1945 code for “I want to sleep with you.” Still, the offer was placed and would Laura fall into his arms only to wake up 15 minutes later with a cigarette dangling ever so gently from the corners of her mouth? Would she go through with it – scandal/marriage be damned!

    Getting on the train and then quickly getting off, she runs to Dr. Alec’s arms but before they can get barely two pieces of clothing off – the friend shows up. Now this is the only miss-step in the film (besides a Rachmaninoff score that made me want to blow my brains out). Pushing Laura out to a fire escape Alec thinks he’s clear until the friend comes in and notices her scarf! He talks to Alec about bringing a woman there and the conversation is extremely distracting due to a number of things.

    1. I have no idea what the guy is talking about. It starts out kind of “nudge, nudge, say no more!” and then turns into a “I’m disappointed in you.”

    2. He’s got these really weird teeth and David Lean shot him in a way that wasn’t very, uh, flattering.

    3. He’s got an Adam’s apple that should have it’s own zip code and it bounces up and down like an annoying yapping puppy – and it might as well have been.

    Still, Laura is on the run, calling her husband, saying she’s late helping a friend – ANOTHER LIE! That she’ll get the next train, that she’s fine. Dr. Alec meets up with her and they make out in a corridor off the tunnel. All very well done in Black and White.

    Finally she is told by Dr. Alec that he must leave. Travel to Africa to be a Doctor there. She is heartbroken but understands and they say goodbye with a loving shoulder squeeze. But, yes, Laura wants to die and nearly kills herself by train.

    While all this is going on for 88 minutes – there is a great sub story about a train worker flirting with a gal who works in the café in the station. She’s got one of those fabulous cockney “Wot oo on about ‘ere?” accents and their relationship, give-and-take, flirty, out in the open, not very proper – but not caring much (though she does take issue with it on occasion – with a wink and a “meet me ‘ere later”) about what other people think is a great counter to the staid and proper relationship between Laura and Dr. Alec.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    It was in English.

    Great Black and White print. Fabulous looking.

    Relationship and resolution was all a lot of fun and I could really feel the pain this woman is going through with loser/slacker/tie-wearing/smoking/crossword puzzler husband. Good that they didn’t cookie cutter him into something one-dimensional. I got the feeling he really did love her but was, basically, clueless as to her needs and desires (like most men – me included).

    The supporting cast was great.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

    The f-ing Rachmaninoff score. I love the man, love the piano, but golly jeez – every time she was outside they seemed to play the same piece of music over and over and over again. Bleah.

    I would have liked to have seen what was going on in Dr. Alec’s mind but I can live without it – as the burden is always on the woman.

    Bottom line: Excellent film. Amazing how poignant you can make a shoulder grab after spending 85 minutes with these characters.

  6. ANOTHER weird thing about that scene with Alec’s friend (he of the prominent Adam’s Apple): It’s completely out of whack with the rest of the movie. EVERY OTHER SCENE in the film is from Laura’s perspective. Her voiceover indicates that we are seeing HER story. But she couldn’t have had any knowledge of that conversation between Alec and his creepy friend. On an unrelated note: I’m glad you liked the bantering couple in the Refreshment Room, just like I did. “‘Allo ‘Allo ‘Allo!”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *