"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 21, 2011

"Brief Encounter" (1946) by David Lean (Film review)

A married woman (Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson) goes each Thursday by train into town for shopping and seeing friends. In the waiting room of the station in town she meets a man, an unmarried doctor (Trevor Howard as Dr Alec Harvey) as she will learn later. They strike up a conversation. They start meeting on Thursdays, for lunch, to see a film together, then for a drive in the countryside. They fall in love and start searching for a place where they can be in private. But she is being torn apart between the attachment to her family (her children rather then her boring husband) and the rules of society on the one hand (this is 1946!) and her feelings of newly found love on the other hand. She feels as if being engulfed in chaos, although so far they have only exchanged a furtive kiss. They decide not to meet anymore and the doctor takes up a position in South Africa. Their last goodbye in the waiting room is disturbed when a loquacious friend of the woman joins them.

What could be a more sugary chick-flick than such a story? I started watching with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised: the film is not sentimental at all. Brief Encounter was in fact rather "Japanese" (Ozu-like) with its understated feelings (although there are verbal declarations of love, which in the Japan of the 40s or 50s would not have happened) and the dignified decision of the protagonists not to meet again. It is all about restraint - of course, England is like Japan another island country known for its stiff upper lip. Falling deeply in love, and then to agree not to meet again in order not to destroy one's family... who in our hungry ego-tripping time where people throw away marriages like old socks, would be able to show such self-control?

There is another reason why I liked this film: it is full of trains. David lean has expertly composed the film around the waiting room at Milford Junction, where the couple has their first meeting and where they see each other every week; the platform where both have to run for their train; the express hurtling past, giving the woman after the separation a brief thought of suicide; and the great steam locomotives and beautiful train compartments carrying them home. But the waiting room is the center of the film and most important scenes take place here. There is a counter selling tea with cakes and chocolate, in real life refreshments the British at the end of the war could only dream of. On the other hand, 1946 was a time that waiting rooms in stations were still clean and decent places...

Milford Junction was really Carnforth Station, in the Lake District, selected by director David Lean because he wanted to be safe  from the German V2s - the film was made in the first months of 1945 when the war was still raging. Filming could only take place when local trains were not running and actors and crew spent a lot of time waiting in the bitterly cold weather - which may have helped to create some of the film's atmosphere.

The music used in the film is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 - Laura also listens to this romantic concerto when, still full of emotions, she returns home after her trysts. Celia Johnson only appeared in a small number of films - she mainly worked for the stage and enjoyed a happy marriage to Peter Fleming, brother of James Bond creator Ian. With her expressive, vulnerable face she is perfect for the role of Laura in Brief Encounter.
Available in the Criterion Collection