UK (1945) Dir. David Lean
The problem with being a “Johnny Come Lately” to a film of such high regard, immense reputation and certifiable classic status is that when one finally gets to see it, they fall into one of two camps: the one that gets what all the fuss was about and has no complaints about the hype that preceded it; or the one that wonders “is that it?” once the credit rolls and runs the risk of raising the ire and disdain of the cineaste community who won’t hear a word said against it.
In typical MIB fashion, I find myself somewhere in the middle where Brief Encounter is concerned.
The story should be familiar to just about every film fan by now: bored housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) meets married doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) in a train station café after she gets a piece of grit in her eye, and from this innocuous meeting the world’s most polite love affair begins. It’s that simple yet so effective. It’s a tale that has been told countless times before and will be told countless times again but never has it been told in such a “British” manner, which certainly adds to its vintage while making it a difficult sell for modern (read: younger) audiences.
Based on the play Still Life by the irrepressible and quintessentially British Noël Coward, who also contributed to the screenplay adaptation, the politeness and unflappable demeanours of our two illicit lovebirds makes for a great satire to the modern eye, largely because that is exactly what this film has inspired over the years. Coward is probably turning in his grave over the thought of this, but every single comedy skit you’ve ever seen where a crisis is confronted by that indomitable “stiff upper lip” stoicism we Brits are recognised by in the eyes of foreign stereotypes is a direct reference to this film. To that end, first time viewers of today’s culture will find this a laugh a minute thanks to the plummy accents and almost inert reactions to the rather serious topic of extra-marital dalliances.
Contrary to what you may think, this film doesn’t glamorise or encourage the idea of infidelity at all – it merely shows the effects of two married people who become attracted to each other who know they really shouldn’t. Making this fact explicit for the viewer is the narration courtesy of Laura, whose audible thoughts act as a confession to her lump of wood husband Fred (Cyril Raymond), with whom she has two children. Having met Fred and their obnoxious, spoiled kids (who are also risibly posh in their speech) it’s no wonder that the dashing doctor seems like the better prospect for some excitement in Laura’s life. We never meet Mrs. Harvey but wouldn’t be ironic if she was off having fun elsewhere while hubby is on his GP rounds?
Whatever the moral implications and misgivings of infidelity may be, the relationship is as above aboard as you can get. There are only a couple of passionate embraces and kisses to be seen, the rest of their time together involves mostly going to the cinema every Thursday followed by tea and scones. Take that Brando and your scoops of butter-this is how you conduct an affair! Naturally Laura finds herself nearly caught out on a couple of occasions and enlists help from her friend Mary Norton (Marjorie Mars) to corroborate a false alibi who does so without any hesitation! Despite displaying all of the familiar traits of cheating spouses, both Laura and Alec are wracked with guilt over their actions and decide to call the whole thing off.
Here’s the kicker – since both are such charming and otherwise decent people the viewer finds themselves in the unusual position of putting their own moral judgement aside and hoping that they do make a go of it. Usually such feelings of support are engendered after one of the cheating party (usually the woman) has been subject to physical or mental abuse leading them to seek solace in much kinder arms; there is none of that here, just a bored housewife and a pleasant but also seemingly unfulfilled husband who fall in love with each other. At the time it may well have seem scandalous but even for 1940’s film goers, the couple of Laura and Alec – or more accurately Johnson and Howard – became anti-heroes in love and have since become paragons of the perfect British love affair. Go figure!
So while the story is superbly deceptive, David Lean deserves credit for creating a riveting romance that is devoid of schmaltz, but possesses a dark edge due in part to the dark, steam filled railway station at which most of the action takes place. Lean manages to create an intimate setting in this and other absurdly public locations while creating a vast distance between Laura and Fred in their cosy home. The film is also nicely shot and the hint of the grand epics Lean would make his name with later on such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence Of Arabia can be found in some of the photography here.
While then, as a film fan, I can see Brief Encounter has a lot to offer on many levels which can’t be faulted, I found it somewhat hard to make that connection with it where I understood its “classic” status. I certainly didn’t dislike it, I’m glad I’ve seen it, but I don’t believe I saw something so special to warrant the lofty reputation that preceded it. Maybe it will get me on a repeat viewing but for now, I remain on the outside looking in on this much loved slice of British cinema.