If one mentions the name David Lean, the director’s grand, big-budget spectacles will likely come to mind. Among them are such motion pictures as Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. Yet, one of the most enduring of Lean’s works is 1945’s Brief Encounter; an intimate, romantic film which eschews Lean’s trademark grand style in favour of taut melodrama. The result is a masterpiece of style, mood, acting and direction. An expansion of Noel Coward’s short play Still Life, Brief Encounter– while rightfully regarded as a classic in this day and age – was a box office failure upon release in 1945. Lean – who was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his efforts – attributed this commercial failure to the presence of middle-aged actors, the lack of recognisable stars, and the downbeat tone which contrasted the desire of post-war movie-goers to embrace expressions of optimism. Additionally, it could not have helped that the overlying theme of infidelity was a little scandalous for the period.
The story of Brief Encounter is simple to tell. Doctor Alec Harvey (Howard) and housewife Laura Jesson (Johnson) briefly meet at a railway station when Alec removes a speck of grit from Laura’s eye. This chance meeting begins a remarkably chaste yet overwhelmingly passionate affair. Both are happily married and have children, yet their relationship rapidly deepens. In the weeks to follow, Alec and Laura meet every Thursday to talk, have lunch and go to the pictures. Though they only see each other once a week, their meetings gradually become more charged with passion, and ultimately they both realise that they have fallen in love.
Brief Encounter begins with a painful scene of Alec and Laura saying their final goodbye to each other at the railway station where they first met. We have not seen any of their relationship yet and hence there is no context, but the sad expressions on the characters’ faces effectively convey what’s happening. Suddenly, one of Laura’s chatterbox friends enters the room, and, unaware of the situation, sits with them to begin rambling. By this point, the movie has not formally introduced either character yet, but Laura and Alec’s longing for each other is instantly evident, as is their frustration that their final moment together has been ruined by an intrusion. A few scenes afterwards, Laura begins narrating, and flashbacks illustrate the circumstances under which Laura and Alec met and ultimately fell in love. Certainly, their romance is mundane; primarily consisting of eating lunch together, seeing movies, going for drives in the country, and stealing kisses in dark tunnels while trains rumble overhead. Yet, the mundane, everyday details coalesce into a stark realism that makes the romance more affecting.
The screenplay was written by Noel Coward in conjunction with Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame and director Lean, but it bears the stamps of a solo Coward effort. Simply put, the script is extraordinary; pinpointing the essential characteristics of the protagonists, the lives they lead, the social restrictions they live under, and the dreams they have. All of the above were perfectly and efficiently captured through precise, subtle, eloquent dialogue for which the words hint at a far deeper meaning. Additionally,Brief Encounter is very much tied to a specific time and place; a post-war England which is permeated with particular attitudes that are virtually unrecognisable compared to the circumstances involved in 21st Century extra-marital affairs. Even the locations where Alec and Laura’s furtive encounters take place seem strange and part of another epoch. Beneath all of the trappings and mannerisms of the period, though, it’s the human qualities at the heart of the film which remain timeless. Lean’s masterful ability to bring these qualities out of Coward’s words and breathe life into them is what ensures the film’s greatness.
In the hands of another filmmaker, Brief Encounter would have been a recipe for disaster – not a great deal actually happens, the ending is telegraphed at the very beginning, the sets are mundane, and the leading roles were not portrayed by enduring stars. Lean overcame these obstacles, though, by employing interesting filmmaking techniques. Lean especially exhibits a mastery for catching little details. Nothing in the film feels out of place or exaggerated, and each scene was held for just the right amount of time. There are a few minor lulls, but for the most part the 85-minute runtime flies by at an immaculate pace. Additionally, Robert Krasker’s black-and-white cinematography is superb – the combination of stylisation and low-key realism enhances the story with the right shades of mood. Meanwhile, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music was put to good use; it highlights the overpowering emotions of the characters and contributes to the haunting atmosphere.
Lean was additionally aided by the remarkable performances courtesy of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, both of whom were blessed with exceptionally expressive faces. The performances may be old-school, but only in so much as they are of the bygone school of stage acting; studious, refined, and capable of tremendous subtlety and nuance of expression. The gradual development of Laura and Alec’s affair feels so organic and unforced that it’s never precisely clear when it moves from friendly companionship to romance. Johnson’s voiceover narration sets an elegaical tone for the film, while Howard is ruggedly handsome and very British.
It’s extraordinary that such a simple, unassuming little movie could work such powerful magic over so many movie-goers for so many generations. Superficially, there’s nothing about Brief Encounter to be excited about, yet Coward’s words, Lean’s filmmaking and the performances elevate it above the ordinary.