Kind of appropriate to be showing Brief Encounter in a cafe restaurant next to an abandoned railway line. Amazing film and I’ll take Lean’s early Noel Coward and Charles Dickens adaptations over his later epics any time. Here’s my notes for The Station screening of Brief Encounter.
“But the minutes went by…”
Brief Encounter is the fourth and final collaboration between Noel Coward and director David Lean having previously worked together on the war films In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1945) as well as the comedy Blithe Spirit (1945). An adaptation of a one-act play by Coward called ‘Still Life,’ the film takes place in and around a railway station as two people consider having an affair. While Brief Encounter is thematically similar to Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz) the latter is the kind of Hollywood escapism Alec (Trevor Howard) and Laura (Celia Johnson) would go and see on the Thursday afternoons they spend together. Laura is certain such grand passion couldn’t happen to somebody who shops in Boots the chemists. Alec and Laura are blindsided by their emotions as their casual acquaintance develops into something much deeper. It is all too easy now to make fun now of the perfectly clipped accents in Brief Encounterand its old-fashioned sense of decency, but the film has lost none of its power.
Sound is important in Brief Encounter. The haunting musical score is Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 and it counterpoints Alec and Laura’s restraint in public with the emotional turmoil they feel. The noises heard at the station; the trains arriving and departing, the announcements, the whistles, all recurring in the background are a reminder of the possibilities of escape. David Lean often uses odd camera angles and films the lovers in shadow, a technique more common in thrillers than in romances yet it adds to the feeling they are somehow transgressing. Bear in mind Coward was a closeted homosexual so forbidden love, clandestine meetings, and being very careful not to attract attention would almost certainly have been part of his romantic life.
There is an argument Brief Encounter represents a gentile and timid form of British cinema though this seems largely reductive. It is rare to find a British film from this period which is so emotionally open or poetic. It also has a complex narrative structure which begins at the end and then shows us through Laura’s memories and her accompanying voice-over events filtered through her own sensibilities before we again see the beginning/end with the added pathos of knowing what we are seeing this time around. Lean would later turn towards large-scale epic productions like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr Zhivago (1965) but this small intimate movie about lives thrown out of kilter by romantic longing is his most extraordinary work.