(David Lean, 1945)
I first saw Brief Encounter nearly twenty years ago, in my teens. I liked it, admired some of its brilliant storytelling, recognised the qualities that made it such an enduring classic. But I didn't really get it. I was irritated by some of the details; how frightfully posh everybody sounds despite the fact that the lead characters are both supposed to be ordinary, middle class people. The strange pacing. The use of the beautiful but melodramatic Rachmaninov Piano concerto 2 throughout the film.
I rewatched Brief Encounter this week. I'm in my 30s now, with a family and a couple of decades of life experience I didn't possess then, loves and regrets and loss all in my past, and this time I got Brief Encounter. This time it seemed an almost profound commentary on life and love, on choice and duty, on emotion. This time it seemed clear that the film is a masterpiece.
Much of the credit for that must go to Noel Coward, who adapted his own play for the script. His dialogue is convincing, deeply human, and powerfully informed by a sense that he understands the emotions he is writing about here, the double edge of love and betrayal, the wretched frustration of letting love go for other reasons. This is a film written by a gay man in what was still an incredibly difficult time to be gay, and the power of a secret love gives the material an incredible charge of passion and genuine emotion, which is only made more effective by being played in such a clipped, repressed, thoroughly British manner.
His story is familiar and has a simplicity which becomes devastating: a man and a woman meet by chance in the cafe on a train station platform one night. They are headed in different directions, but another chance meeting, a week later, throws them together, and quickly, effortlessly, naturally, they fall in love. He is Alec (Trevor Howard), a doctor. She is Laura (Celia Johnson), a housewife. They only meet on five different occasions in the film, yet the storytelling choices made by Coward and Lean give those meetings a massive emotional wallop.
We witness the agony of their interrupted final moments together in the first scene, but they are presented from a neutral point of view, their drama playing out in the background of a group scene. Then the camera stays with Laura as she travels home, and Coward indulges her with an interior monologue, told as narration. Only now does her pain become clear. Later she recalls the relationship in flashback, imagining telling her warm, loving husband the whole story but actually keeping it to herself.
Lean cuts confidently and with precise sensitivity between tight close-ups of the lovers tremulous faces and longer shots of them against the dark brickwork of the station or moving through the towns crowds, emphasising the odd tension between their emotional life and the public face they present to the world when they are together.
All of this presents a powerful picture of suburban mores in 1945, when gossip was feared and people were used to putting their heads down and doing their duty. There is never really any question of Alec and Laura being together, indeed, they never entertain the prospect. They try to snatch what happiness they can from their stolen moments together, and both are plainly devastated when that ends.
The leads are brilliant here. Johnson carries the picture, so much of the story visible only in her large, tear-filled eyes, her pain and confusion absolutely convincing. Howard is more outwardly controlled, letting little emotion slip, but his facial expressions and body language in their parting scene are astonishingly effective at indicating just how this experience will ruin him.
The Rachmaninov is nicely used, its emotional tones colouring exactly the right scenes in the story, and Robert Krasker's cinematography is typically superb, evoking dark evenings in little England and crisp mornings in market towns with acute atmosphere and some beautiful shot selection.
For all the later joys in his oeuvre, Brief Encounter is perhaps Lean's greatest film, a near-perfect and timeless love story and an immensely powerful minor tragedy which has aged but never dated.