CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)
TITLE: BRIEF ENCOUNTER
DIRECTOR: DAVID LEAN
WRITERS: NOEL COWARD, RONALD NEAME, ANTHONY HAVELOCK-ALLEN
MAIN CAST: CELIA JOHNSON, TREVOR HOWARD, STANLEY HOLLOWAY
While I’m not a classic romantic I must admit you can’t beat a really good love story when it’s done well. The ones I enjoy the most are usually the tragic failed or unrequited romance stories which tug, unravel and then break the heart-strings. While I have a soft spot for a jolly rock ‘n’ roller such as Grease (1978), the romance films that stay with me are the likes of: Casablanca (1942), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Dr Zhivago (1965), End of the Affair (1999), Last of the Mohicans (1992) and the sterling understatement of Remains of the Day (1993). Of course, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another brilliant example of a heart-breaking doomed love affair.
I recently went to see Brief Encounter (1945) – on Valentines’ Day in fact – with my wife at the Festival Hall. It was screened in front of a live orchestra, the London Philharmonic no less, and introduced by the daughter of actress Celia Johnson. I’m not a fan of live orchestral presentations as I’m a bit basic and practical. I always think you could be at home listening to a recording via download or CD; yes I am a philistine and have no soul! However, the live accompaniment to the screening of Brief Encounter was phenomenal; enhancing the filmic experience with beautiful renditions of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Based on Noel Coward’s one act play called Still Life, Brief Encounter really stands the test of time as a poignant narrative of romantic loss. It concerns a seemingly contented housewife, Laura Jesson, and her chance encounter with a respectable Doctor Alec Harvey. Their classic meeting on the platform where he removes grit from her eye sets in motion a touching will-they-won’t-they tryst which pulls you in throughout. The structure is sophisticated and layered with flashbacks as Laura, sitting in her comfy armchair, reminisces of her times with Alec, while her husband sits there unawares doing a crossword.
Much praise has obviously been made of David Lean’s exquisite framing and direction and the searing power of the Rachmaninoff’s music but for me the script from Coward and Celia Johnson’s sorrowful performance were also things of beauty. Her clipped and dulcet tones resonated as she delivered vignettes of secret meetings, stolen memories and pulsing regret. After all this is 1938 and middle-class women were meant to be the bedrock of the household and affairs were a massive faux pas. Plus, she loves her husband and her children; the secrets and lies were just beastly products of a wicked passion and must be repressed. Their respective sense of duty, guilt and the unfair timing of their meeting just won’t allow a happy-ever-after story. Despite it being seventy years old the film is so sad and I still felt the characters’ heartache radiate through the screen.
Much of the action takes place on shadowy platforms, moving trains and in the café room at the railway station. The rush of smoke, whistles and trains create a sense of urgency and panic to the love affair. The couple are always in a rush to be with and away from each other so as not create suspicion at home. Conversely Alec and Laura are like trains themselves passing each other in the night in transit but unable to couple up for the remaining life journey. It’s not all doom and gloom though as Coward’s script is full of wit, humour and suspense too. The secondary characters and extremely well drawn and while bordering on the stereotypical the characterisations reflect the various British types and the class system prevalent at the time.
Overall, Brief Encounter remains a classic romance and one of the best British films ever made. It tells us love has no logic or idea of timing as two innocent characters are made to be liars because of the power of their emotions. Only the goodness of their hearts, a sense of duty and what is right means they will ultimately return to their marriage partners. But the gaping vacuum created by love is something they will just have to contend with. Brief Encounter is a timeless classic and deserves to be seen on the big screen; especially when backed by the exquisite musicianship of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.