Posted on 1/23/12 04:13 PM
"Brief Encounter" is very quiet subdued film from director David Lean, known more for his sprawling epics "Lawrence of Arabia", "Dr. Zhivago" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" and from writer Noel Coward who was one of the most important playwrights of his time. Their respective brilliance is on show here, in this early masterpiece which stands up against Lean's later works.
The film seems to suffer from accusations that it has "dated poorly" but I honestly don't see it. It is the story of a potentially explosive affair that is told in a very reserved manner, and scarcely has any impact beyond the two central characters. For this reason the film seems like a breath of fresh air in a genre that tends to lean towards melodrama. With "Brief Encounter" we are given a focus more on internal conflict, particularly in the mind of Laura (Celia Johnson) whose inner monologue, spoken as if to her caring husband, is stitched throughout the flashback telling of her affair with Alec Hardy (Trevor Howard). This narration serves the purpose of highlighting Laura's self-consciousness and adds poetry to the calm visuals.
In the romantic genre this film is quite original in that it deals with a middle-aged middle-class couple who start an extra-marital affair. There are no villains, Laura's husband is respectful and understanding, Alec's wife is non-existent. The only conflict is internal, borne from feelings that cannot be helped and actions that occur spontaneously. We are not distracted by childish squabbles, we are dealing with intelligent respectable people who are overcome with love and misery and so we get a film that is not didactic or preachy in the way many American films of this time are. Although the affair between Alec and Laura doesn't work out there is no resolution. Even though the final image in the film is Laura and her husband embracing, her last true emotional act is her attempt to throw herself under a train. She is in pain from beginning to end.
This is not to say that the film wallows in depression or self-hatred. There are moments of real love and infatuation. The film explores the highs and lows of an incongruous love affair, shooting from the joy of being in the other person's company to the shame of being part of an illicit love affair that takes place outside the confines of what is socially acceptable, being forced to duck and hide outside one's usual social circles, having to lie to one's husband so as not to have to face the consequences of his disappointment.
Addressing the accusations of the film's being out-dated, there are of course a number of things in the film that betray the time in which it was made. Laura is a character who is exploring sexual possibilities outside the confines of a nuclear family, and seeing as the film was made during the reign of a conservative government during war-time, it is indicative of the changing values in a Britain that would be at the forefront of social reform 15 years later, and that would of course vote out the conservative government the following election. The film explores how women's place in society was rapidly changing, and how the change would not be easy for anyone.
The film is sprinkled with great moments but the most poignant is the one scene that takes place both at the beginning and the end of film, in which Alec and Laura part for the final time. In the beginning we see that Alec and Laura are annoyed by the arrival of Mrs Messiter, but it's not until we revisit this scene at the end of the film that we get to understand the irritation and discomfort of this departure. It was a relationship that was always overcast with fear of exposure and guilt, this ending is representative of the essence of the relationship. It can't even end well, but of course this is merely the end of physical interaction, the mental anguish will continue, which Laura understands, which is why she attempts to kill herself.
This is truly one of the greatest British films ever made from one of the great directors and one of the most notable playwrights of the 20th Century. It works because we are shown two characters who are smart enough to know what they are doing will end badly, but are too smitten with one another to be able to resist meeting every Thursday. They are both respectable family people, one holds down an admirable profession the other keeps house, yet for all their good education and high social standing they have no means by which to avoid these events. It is a story of love and tragedy in which physical appearances mean nothing and what lies beneath is where the seeds of change are sewn.