Brief Encounter (1945)
“A story of the most precious moments in a woman’s life!”
Director: David Lean
Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway
Synopsis: Meeting a stranger in a railway station, a woman is tempted to cheat on her husband.
Brief Encounter opens with a telling little scene which takes place in a railway station canteen. A middle-aged woman (Everley Gregg) bustles in. She sees a woman she knows, an acquaintance named Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson). The woman is one of those garrulous types who barely pauses to draw breath as she immediately assails Laura. The man sitting next to Laura is Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). They cast furtive glances at one another as the woman prattles on, and try not to show their discomfort and frustration. We don’t know yet why they behave this way, but it pretty much sums up what the entire film is about: the ingrained codes and rules of a polite society which prevents its members from acting upon the emotions they instinctively know to be honest and true. The couple are would-be lovers who are about to part forever. The woman has crashed the precious final few moments they will ever spend together, and each is too polite to do anything other than pretend to listen attentively to her inane drivel.
The couple met in the same canteen a few weeks before when he removed a piece of grit from her eye. A tentative relationship develops after they run into each other at a cafe and spend the afternoon at the cinema. While it isn’t exactly love at first sight — they’re both a little too old for that — a mutual attraction quickly takes hold, and their Thursday afternoons together quickly become a regular thing. The problem is that both of them are married. She’s a mother of two with a devoted but dull husband whose idea of a good time is an evening solving a crossword puzzle in front of the radio, and he has a wife he describes as ‘delicate,’ which may or may not be a euphemism for frigid. To be honest, neither Laura nor Alec seems to have much passion in their veins on first reckoning. In fact, Laura looks so prim and proper that it’s easier to imagine her enduring the act of love-making with teeth gritted and fists clenched than it is to picture her losing herself in the throes of passion. But, then, that’s what the movie tries to show: the suppressed passion that lurks within us all — or at least it was suppressed back in 1938, when the story is set; the 1960s changed all that, of course.
Alec seems a little more certain of what he wants than Laura. He even goes so far as to arrange access to a friend’s flat one afternoon so that they can finally consummate their affair. But the early return of his friend, who finds the scarf Laura left behind when she made a hurried exit through the back door — and who demonstrates his disapproval of Alec’s behaviour in a perfectly polite and civilised way that only the British could — foils his plan and signals the beginning of the end of the relationship.
Athough events conspire against them, it’s largely Laura’s guilt that scuppers their affair. Throughout the picture, she is faced with guilt-triggering figures of authority — a policeman as she smokes in the park, a vicar in the train carriage on the train journey home following her first afternoon with Alec — or incidents that convince her of the wrongness of what they’re doing, whether it’s her son’s involvement in a minor accident, or the fake disapproval of the canteen serving lady (Joyce Carey) for the crude flirting of the assistant stationmaster (Stanley Holloway).
There’s no denying the quality of the material in Brief Encounter, but the attitudes and manners of its characters consign it to the status of a relic of a bygone age. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it at least gives the present generation a keyhole through which it can glimpse the past, but what is questionable is whether it would actually want to. Attitudes have changed to such a degree that an entire generation that would have headed straight to the nearest Travelodge instead of a trip to the pictures after that first luncheon date simply wouldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
(Reviewed 31st January 2013)