Movie Review: Brief Encounter (1945)

A love affair destined for greatness __ 9/10

Brief EncounterDr. Alec Harvey: Could you really say goodbye? Never see me again?
Laura Jesson: Yes, if you’d help me.
Dr. Alec Harvey: 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.
Laura Jesson: Very well. Not quite yet.

Directed by David Lean
Play “Still Life:” Noel Coward
Writer Anthony Havelock-Allan
Writer Ronald Neame

Celia Johnson … Laura Jesson
Trevor Howard … Dr. Alec Harvey
Stanley Holloway … Albert Godby
Joyce Carey … Myrtle Bagot
Cyril Raymond … Fred Jesson
Everley Gregg … Dolly Messiter
Marjorie Mars … Mary Norton
Margaret Barton … Tea Room Assistant

After watching the DVD bonus features of The Bridges of Madison County, which I reviewed here, I learned that at least part of the inspiration for Madison County was this little gem of a movie here… I guess it was first a stage play by Noel Coward entitled Still Life. The movie, Brief Encounter, does have the feel of a play, though with many elements that would not appear in a typical stage production.

For one thing, much of the heavy emotional lifting comes not from the actions or speech of the actors, rather from the first-person narrative of the woman Mrs. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and generally in the form of a letter (being written solely in her mind) to her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). It’s this narrative, IMHO[1], delivered with the precise inflections and tonalities of a middle-class Englishwoman in love with language, that grips one’s imagination. At least mine, fiercely.

The plot of emotional straying away from a good relationship into one that promises an ecstasy of fulfillment is as old as people ourselves. Who among the millions of either gender that have ascended beyond the survival level has not felt the twinge of longing for, or at least wondering about, climbing the ultimate heights of passion between a man and a woman? Indeed, Western literature makes such pinnacles into a top-ten list of preoccupations… from Romeo and Juliet to Howard Roark and Dominique Francon. In the words of a Country-crossover song from years ago, “It’s sad to belong to someone else when the right one comes along.”

What I feel Brief Encounter captures uniquely is the words and concepts that apply to such romantic hopes. Not only the hopes but the realities that ground people to a steady and more predictable path when it comes to man-woman relationships. Biologically it would seem women are more inclined to cleave unto the well-traveled path, especially when kids come along. But take Francesca in Bridges of Madison County: she discovers that the man she married will never approach a life of the mind—interaction above the day-to-day—and her life on the farm will remain a journey of silence ’til death do he or she part. Putting myself in her shoes, I would definitely take the red pill, see where destiny leads her.

On reflection, the desire for something better in one’s love life probably affects the sexes equally. In Brief Encounter, Laura seems to have a better deal than Francesca: Compared to Francesca’s Richard, Laura’s husband Fred is a beacon of stimulation and adventure—at least intellectual adventure. If you’re going to be bored, Fred is the better choice, mainly because he’s within that range of normalcy that a woman can actually accept and sometimes be grateful for. As we hear from Laura’s own lips, and from the fact she is writing this mental letter to her loving husband, Fred is one great guy… their small children are adorable, too.

So why would her affections stray so strongly to someone else? The conditions of Laura meeting Dr. Eric Harvey (Trevor Howard) are the most ordinary, they meet in a coffee shop—sorry, it’s a tea room—of a large train station in or near London. Immediately post WW2, or at least post the end of the European war. He helps her remove a speck from her eye. At the next encounter they make pleasant conversation… then I don’t recall what sets them off to truly relish the other’s company. One thing leads to another, she’s taken by his boyish enthusiasm for his medical work, which he views as a cause. He finds her comments about books and art down to earth, yet like the poetry of a siren to his ears.

Who can resist being perceived as one wishes to be perceived? They are attractive people, sure, but certainly not Hollywood. What they do see is into the other’s soul. And it happens quickly. I’ll let the viewer find out for himself or herself how far down the garden path they travel and whether the intimations of physical attraction find completion. Also whether and what decisions they make. I will note that Brief Encounter weaves in some dramatic directorial and photographic ideas, especially onrushing trains. (The movie is in black and white.)

You can think of the trains as powerful forces that either a) sweep up the romantic soul or b) work the other way, to rush or crush mightily against any flight of imagination that challenges the safe order of things. The other characters in the movie, mainly at the train station, provide grist to the mill by showing what passes for “wandering outside the box” for most people. The banter between the tea attendant woman and two of the conductors reveal how many of us hide our disappointments with life/love thru a humorous familiarity with acquaintances. Also, Laura’s snooty and chatty women friends add to her frustration, even agony. Alec’s good old boy buddy is a bit of a pisser, too, come to think of it.

Yes, Brief Encounter takes a definitely conceptual approach, and is certainly heartfelt at the same time. Both characters have a clear idea of what’s in store for them as they continue down the trail of forbidden pleasures (addictions?). And so do we. Another major feature of the movie: classical music buffs will appreciate the nearly constant playing of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, primarily the second (slower and deeply sentimental) movement. I’m in a quandary whether the piece is played too often or without enough specificity to the emotions on the screen. Surely, Rachmaninoff’s Second is one of the most romantic creations of all time, causing me, at least, to ignore any misplacement.

The DVD includes a commentary bonus, and also reveals how the celluloid film was restored in the 1990s for creating the digital media. I love this movie, and I miss having such movies around much anymore.

[1] in my humble opinion


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