You can try to resist the swooning romance of Brief Encounter (1946).
You can sneer at its genteel surfaces, at the lack of physical passion on display (the characters are British, after all).
The film’s central dilemma – the lead characters are all knotted up over the question of whether to go all the way and consummate their newfound love – seems awfully quaint by our current lubricious standards of sexual behavior.
And yet David Lean’s film still hooks us, just as surely as it’s been hooking audiences for nearly 70 years.
I think it’s because the film – based on Noel Coward’s stage play Still Life – has captured a universal experience...or at any rate, a universal pipedream.
A suburban British housewife circa 1938 meets a physician on a railway platform – he removes a cinder from her eye – and over the course of several consecutive Thursdays they meet again and again, at first by accident, then simply to enjoy each other’s company at the movies or a tea parlor.
Both are married with children, and each is quietly (and guiltily) gratified to realize that they still hold an attraction for the opposite sex. Finally they must face up to the big question – will they meet in a borrowed apartment to take their relationship to a physical level?
The lovers – Laura and Alec – are played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, and they are heartbreaking precisely because they are not beautiful movie people. They look like who they are supposed to be: average folk.
And yet as their love deepens, they both start looking astoundingly beautiful.
Brief Encounter was the fourth time that Lean had filmed a Noel Coward stage hit for the screen (earlier adaptations included the patriotic naval drama In Which We Serve in 1942, and the comedies This Happy Breed in ’44 and Blithe Spirit in’45).
Those earlier films were fairly straightforward, but Lean was dissatisfied with Still Life, which unfolded in standard chronological order.
He complained to Coward: “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. It’s not intriguing. You’re not saying to the audience, ‘Watch carefully. This is interesting.’”
The answer was twofold. First, Lean suggested shuffling the time frame. Brief Encounter begins at the end of the story. Alec and Laura are sitting at a table in the same railway tea shop where they met weeks earlier. In a few moments a train will take him away forever. Their poignant farewell is interrupted by the braying arrival of one of Laura’s lady friends.
What follows – the bulk of the story – is told in flashback.
Second, Lean insisted that the story be told through the inner voice of Laura, who in narration shares with us, the audience, the great love she dare not reveal to anyone else. Although voiceover narration is often the sign of a lazy writer, in this case it proved a brilliant solution to the problem of a character who, by culture and temperament, cannot outwardly reveal her burning desires, insecurities, fears, and guilt. But by eavesdropping on her thoughts, we get the full gamut of her emotions.
Lean also insisted on opening up the film. Still Life was a one-set stage play unfolding in the train station tea shop. But Lean insisted on filming at a real train depot, and the smoke-bellowing, sparks-throwing locomotives that roar by become a dynamic metaphor for the roiling emotions of the principal characters.
Lean also had the canny idea of placing the lovers against nature, whether on a cold rail platform where we can see their breath in the air, or in a rowboat on a river. That latter sequence contains a great piece of subtle visual storytelling.
Alec and Laura are happily rowing along when their boat is brought up short by a chain stretched across the water. As one critic has written: “On a symbolic level this obstruction represents all the repressive conventions society has arrayed against them – the artificial sense of propriety, the duty to class and family, and the resultant sexual guilt – everything that stops up the course of the river, that prevents nature from teaching them.”
Nobody had great hopes for Brief Encounter, a small film with unknown lead actors. Yet it was wildly successful, earning Lean an Oscar nomination for direction and Johnson one for lead actress.
Moreover, it paved the way for Lean’s ever-more-ambitious career. He moved on to adaptations of Dickens (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist), a social comedy (Hobson’s Choice), a romantic drama (Summertime) and then the big-budget, epic blockbusters that were to become his calling card: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago.
Other films in the series “Give Us a Kiss”
August is “Romance Awareness Month.” Who knew? In any case, you’ll get a romantic charge from this series of films about love.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- August 3: Brief Encounter (1946) Not Rated
- August 10: Stairway to Heaven (1946) Rated PG
- August 17: The Apartment (1960) Not Rated
- August 24: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) Not Rated
- August 31: Casablanca (1942) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.