Next week sees the re-release of one of big softy Ron Swanson‘s all-time favourite films – David Lean’s Brief Encounter – as part of the BFI’s new Love season. Hankies at the ready.
Brief Encounter is a timeless classic that when I first saw it completely blew me away. It’s not a quintessential David Lean film, perhaps, being a deliberately small and intimate piece about a tentative love affair rather than a sprawling epic, but it is, for my money, comfortably the best film he ever made.
Adapted from Noel Coward’s one-act play Still Life, Brief Encounter is the story of Laura (Celia Johnson), a respectable, middle-class woman who while waiting to return home from a shopping trip in a nearby town meets Alec (Trevor Howard), a doctor to whom she is instantly attracted. The film, which is set in 1938, is structured in such a way that Laura is remembering these events while sat at home with her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond), imagining that she is confessing for her dalliance, the scale of which we uncover piece by piece.
Lean, while working on a vastly different scale from his other hits (Bridge on the River Kwai, Passage to India, Ryan’s Daughter) is still able to create a world of striking contrasts on that very small scale – the warmth and chatter of the train station tearoom in which Alec and Laura meet is vastly different from every time we see them together elsewhere, which always feels dangerous and uneasy. While this may not have been Lean’s most expensive production, he never photographed a more handsome film, the black and white cinematography is sumptuous, and the sense of time and place he creates is flawless. This is clearly northern England (God’s own country), and clearly at a time pre-WWII, while the concerns of adultery and divorce would have been heightened by the royal scandal.
One of the things that I love about the film is that I found it almost impossible to know what would happen next – this is a film from the 1940s, which not only casts its two stars as potentially unfaithful spouses but salts the game a little in giving the audience every reason to root for them to get together. It feels radical and completely free – which happen to be the things that are driving Laura to consider the infidelity, feeling trapped by the monotony of her perfectly pleasant, but rather dull marriage. Alec is exciting, and dashing. He’s instantly and obviously interested in her; and from a life of routine and regularity something interesting and new has bloomed before she’s even fully aware of it.
Alec, we realise is, in many ways, the opposite of Fred. He’s thin and angular, as opposed to soft and sturdy, quick to the point and charming, where Fred is more aimless bonhomie and chatter. As the film progresses, there seems little doubt that Laura will choose Alec, and that this electrifying attraction will develop into real love. We’re trained to believe that that will happen, or that it not happening will be the result of, or will lead to, a tragedy.
Instead, Coward, Lean and the impeccable cast do something completely different, they give us a happy ending in which nothing that we think we wanted happens. Alec and Laura do not end up together, they decide that their affair has no future and neither can live with the idea of breaking up their respective families. At the loss of this sudden, quick love, Laura is distraught, and the audience is right there with her. Alec and Laura’s last scene together is tragic – it’s devastating as even their final goodbye to each other is blighted.
At this point, we cannot help but wonder if she will be a tragic heroine, whose demise will be a shock to her family, who never noticed anything was wrong. Instead, as Laura finishes her story, she breaks down to Fred, and we realise he’s been more awake to her restlessness than she’d imagined. Again, tragedy beckons, but again the film confounds our expectations, as Fred offers comfort, understanding and kindness, before delivering one of the most perfect encapsulations of the love I long for in my life and my favourite last line in cinema “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me”.
And, that is what makes Brief Encounter so special to me. The romance and excitement of Alec and Laura’s relationship is not the hero of the film – instead it is the patience and understanding of a deeper, more resonant love. A love that can forgive a mistake, or accept a wavering. A love that wants to persist, and grow. And a love that creates a feeling of safety and respect. There aren’t many films about romance that make a point to even acknowledge those aspects of love. That Brief Encounter does so while for the most part seeming to focus on anything else is a sign of a truly great film.