Brief Encounter remains one of the director’s best loved movies.
Tales of unrequited love or a love that meets a tragic ending seem to elicit more tears than affairs that end happily. From Camille to The Bridges of Madison County to Before Sunrise, love found and then lost is a tale that directors have been telling since the invention of film. Among the best and most devastating of the multitude of these stories is David Lean’s 1945 weeper Brief Encounter.
Brief Encounter was the fourth and final film Lean directed from a Noël Coward script. Beginning with propaganda tale In Which We Serve (1942) to family drama This Happy Breed (1944) and supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit (1945), Lean’s early career was a baptism by fire as he worked with the older and more famous Coward. Lean, who began as a highly regarded film editor, met Coward when the playwright offered to help out the British film industry during World War II. And while their three prior films are held in high regard, Brief Encounter remains the undisputed masterpiece to spring from this brief partnership.
During his four-decade run as a director, Lean not only married six times, but lived the life of a lothario. What is most amazing is that one of his most beloved films depicts a chaste affair. Based on Coward’s short play Still Life, Brief Encounter tracks the short fling between bored housewife Laura Jesson (Lean regular Celia Johnson) and a charming doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard in his first major role). They meet by chance, at a railway station after Laura gets something in her eye. The attraction is instant and soon the pair is meeting for lunch, going to the movies and other excursions.
Though filmed during the second World War, Brief Encounter takes place in the ‘30s, a time where there is no external event bearing down on the doomed couple. Laura, who lives the perfect suburban life with a doting husband and two young children, obviously yearns for more from life. She takes the train weekly to a nearby town where she does her shopping and takes in a matinee. Lean decidedly portrays her as provincial to build up the suburban ennui that propels her into Alec’s arms.
The story is told in a frame structure, beginning at the end when Alec and Laura part for good at the unforgettable location where they first met: the train station. Lean’s camera pans across the station’s little snack shop where the proprietress and the stationmaster flirt and comes to rest on a couple who are obviously in duress. But before we learn just why they seem so sad, the woman’s loud-mouthed friend interrupts the pair to gossip, never leaving them alone until it is time for the man to leave. The woman, Laura, returns home to her husband, who is completely oblivious to her distress, completing his crossword instead. Then Laura queues up the record player to play the dramatic and saddening sounds of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. As she watches her husband do his puzzle, Laura composes a letter to him in her head, telling the story of her brief encounter.
Much like Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Brief Encounter tells the story of a couple who meet suddenly, enjoy an intense relationship (though unconsummated here) and then part forever (unless you count Linklater’s sequels). Alec and Laura quickly fall in love but the mores of the epoch, along with the tethers of marriage prevent them from sharing anything more than a kiss. At one point, Alec invites Laura up to an apartment owned by a colleague but rather than screw, they make small talk. They are then interrupted by the apartment’s owner who shames Alec for his attempted infidelity. Alec soon decides to leave England for Africa, imploring Laura to go with him.
Most of the film catches the pair’s surreptitious encounters in darkened theaters, smoky train stations and shadowy alleyways. Alec is the first to profess his love, but it doesn’t take long for Laura to return the adoration. When the pair finally separate for good, Lean makes the parting emotional. We know they will never see each again.
Brief Encounter has enjoyed admiration since its debut. Not only did it garner critical praise and stellar box office sales, Johnson was nominated for an Oscar for her role, Lean for best director, as well as best screenplay along with Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allen. The film ran for eight months in some cities, including New York City.
Lean is probably best known for his bloated string of epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. And while these films cost millions of dollars more than Brief Encounter and featured stars like Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and William Holden, none of them can match the emotional fireworks that explode out of this 86-minute gem. Brief Encounter remains one of the director’s best loved movies, one that marked the end of his apprenticeship under Coward as he blossomed into one of the most revered auteurs of the 20th century.