Title: Brief Encounter
Director: David Lean
Major Players: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard
Out Of Five: Four
It’s a film that everybody thinks they know, that’s been mercilessly parodied over the years and that’s indelibly associated its piano soundtrack. And this year it celebrates its 70th anniversary with a newly restored version, released around the UK from this Friday.
Brief Encounter first saw the light of day as a short play by Noel Coward, a two hander set in a railway station tea shop. By the time it came to the screen under the direction of David Lean, its setting had expanded, although it’s that station and its tea shop that everybody remembers.
By way of a quick reminder, the story concerns Laura (Celia Johnson), who is waiting for a train after her weekly shopping day in town. Local GP Alec (Trevor Howard) helps her out when she gets some grit in her eye and the following week they bump into each other in town. Before they know it, they’ve met up a few more times and are falling deeply in love. There’s only one thing standing in their way. They’re married – to other people. And, in the days when divorce was frowned upon, they have to choose between doing the right thing or following their hearts.
That grit in Celia Johnson’s eye really started something. In this case, a romance that, while it appears to be rooted in the past with its setting and attitudes, is still remarkably relevant. So relevant, that the opening scene is more than echoed in Todd Haynes’ Carol, another story about forbidden love. For the tea room, substitute restaurant. There’s a couple at a table, quietly talking to each other, when somebody who knows one of them rushes in and interrupts the conversation. That person is oblivious the emotional intensity they’ve shattered, but we’re not. It’s just that we don’t know the how and the why. And then the film goes back to the beginning and explains the background to that scene. Both films do it, and the remarkable thing is that it works just as well, despite the 70 year age gap.
Unexpectedly for the day, Brief Encounter is seen very much through Laura’s eyes and it’s very much her story. We see her husband and home, but never see anything of Alec’s wife or children. We hear her thoughts too, so that sometimes the camera concentrates purely on Johnson’s face, following her expressions, while her voice narrates the scene. In that way, it’s a very contemporary story, with the woman being the stronger, more mature character, who actually leads the decision the couple have to make about their future.
You can hear Noel Coward’s clipped tones in the dialogue. They’re not as exaggerated as comedians would have you believe, but they do sound somewhat archaic, as does Laura’s definition of “ordinary”. By today’s standards, she is a lady who lunches, living in a detached house with her husband and two children, as well as employing a maid who cooks and cares for the family. Not very ordinary, really. It’s a description that’s more suited to the other regulars in the tea shop, who also have their own story and provide something of a sub-plot. They’re not quite comic relief but something akin to Shakespeare’s rustics. The shop’s run by Mrs Bagot (Joyce Carey) who loves to put on airs and graces and be superior to everybody. She’s the object of the affection of Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway), who runs the station, inspects tickets and keeps the place working but, unlike Laura and Alec, they don’t face any barriers.
It’s a film about love, passion and duty – and duty wins. And it’s the ending that makes it seem less than contemporary for today’s audiences, because the social mores are very different. While we’re not allowed to become involved in Alec’s home life, we’re close to Laura’s. Her children seem spoilt, but her husband, while he’s wrapped up in his crosswords and whatever he does at work, seems like a decent guy. He’s even given a nicely solid name, Fred (Cyril Raymond). But he’s not completely insensitive because, when Laura’s made her choice, it’s clear that he’s noticed a change in his wife. He doesn’t understand why and probably never will, but he does realise she’s been unhappy and senses it could have been something that would have threatened their marriage. He genuinely loves her in his way.
That conclusion to the film keeps its feet very much in the mid-40s, making Brief Encounter very much of its time, despite its relevance to present day audiences. But, at the same time, it’s a story that can only ever be described as timeless.
The 70th anniversary restoration of Brief Encounter is released in selected cinemas as of Friday, 6 November, including the BFI in London where it plays as part of the LOVE season. The film is also reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 5 November.