Watched: January 1 2017
Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Cyril Raymond
Runtime: 1h 26min
Brief Encounter is David Lean’s film version of a Noël Coward play, and it is beautiful.
Laura Jesson (Johnson) and Dr Alec Harvey (Howard) are sitting in a station café when they are steamrolled by a whirlwind known as Dolly. She blabbers on, completely oblivious to the fact that she has clearly interrupted something very special and important.
Dr Harvey leaves and Laura goes home to her husband (Raymond) and tries to process what has happened through internal dialogue and flashbacks, as a story told, but not told, to her husband.
Alec and Laura met by chance in the station café some weeks prior to the opening scene. They then keep running into each other until they start to plan their meetings and eventually admit to falling in love with each other. They start a (unfulfilled) romance which changes at least her perception of her life and identity.
Their relationship is doomed from the start as they both have families (who they seem to love as well) and are too proper and middle class to divorce or even “properly” cheat on their partners. The story is told from her perspective, and parts of it reminds us of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (though that may be because we’re Norwegian and prone to finding Ibsen-parallels in everything). She is stuck in a too small life and Alec is as much the catalyst for her “awakening” as anything else. When she imagines their life together, she does not see him as a replacement for her husband – their life will be one filled with travel and adventure, not the mundane and routine based life she’s currently leading.
Of course, therein lies the appeal of “brief encounters” – the routine of day to day life never has a chance to ruin the perfect romance. Laura and Alec’s dalliance does not go on far enough for us, or the characters, to know whether their relationship would be better in the long run than the ones they are too “proper” to escape. In fact, in the end it seems Laura’s husband understands her better than she thinks, and there may be some hope there after all. However, she is still stuck in the same routine, with only the memory of romance to keep her going.
We loved this film. The story is well told from Laura’s perspective, and the need for something “real” to happen in her life is very clear. It is also beautifully shot, especially everything involving trains, from the first shot of the speeding train scored by Rachmaninoff to the gorgeous shot of Laura reflected in the train window while dreaming of an alternate life. The last moments of her “vertigo” and suicidal impulse upon Alec leaving for the last time are both disturbing and wonderful.
What we learned: a romance doesn’t have to be epic and earth shattering to be life changing for those involved.
Next time: Dead of Night (1945)