Brief Encounter tells the story of Laura (Celia Johnson), a housewife who has a brief affair with a married doctor, played by Trevor Howard.
For a film that is made in the 40s, Brief Encounter feels very fresh and modern. David Lean is known for his epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but his direction in this simple love story is really outstanding as well. There’s something poetic about the whole mood of the film, and the way the meetings are always set in the train station cafe really brings out the transient nature of the whole relationship. The sound of the train’s whistle serves as a constant reminder of how this relationship is bound not to last, hence making the ending of the film even more heartbreaking. The film is often described as beautiful, and I really think that’s the most apt word for it. It’s really poetic and the flow is very smooth, surrealistic and romantic without being melodramatic or smaltzy. It’s a pretty minimalist film but it manages to construct a dreamy atmosphere thanks to the acting and direction. I especially loved the train shots, because they really represent Laura’s escape from her dull life into this affair, a different world altogether, and the scene in the carriage where she was imagining all the possible happiness she could have with the doctor was pure brilliance. I liked how the transition back to reality in that scene was represented by how “the palm trees change into those pollarded willows by the canal”, because it effectively reminded us (and Laura) that her happiness is short-lived, and that she still has to return to reality, which is her family. That feeling was something I really could resonate with, not that I have affairs or anything of course, but the bitter feeling whenever I know that a joyous occasion is coming to an end. It’s especially obvious how the scenes where Laura is at home feels so ordinary, while the atmosphere instantly changes when she’s with the doctor. And that score! The melancholic piano tune that is interspersed throughout the film really adds to the feeling of doom, reminding you of how this relationship is not going to last.
Celia Johnson gives a truly fantastic, oscar robbed (with all respect to Olivia de Havilland, another favorite of mine) performance as Laura, the housewife. It’s a simple character, but the emotions that the character goes through are complex, such as the ever going conflict in her mind, to the bitter realization in the end that the affair can never last. She successfully contrasts the mere contentment she has living with her husband and family with the exhilaration of being with the doctor. I also liked how she managed to show the flaws of the character, such as when she admitted that the reason why she did not commit suicide had nothing to do with her family. And one must mention how natural and subtle her delivery is, and how her expressive face manages to convey all these emotions, from the emptiness of living with her husband (I love the way she tested to see if he cares about what she’s doing, she really brought out the character’s loneliness), to happiness, and the pure hopefulness, and then to pure despair in the end. Her smile that was reflected in the train window in the imagination scenes really stuck out for me. It’s easily one of the best 40s performances I’ve seen, and I may even like it more that Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (used to be my favorite 40s performance). It’s just heartbreakingly realistic and beautiful, and I find it hard to pick a favorite scene.
Only issue I had was the narration…it was good because of Johnson’s delivery and the emotions she injected in her delivery, but otherwise I thought it was quite unnecessary because of how effectively she already conveyed the emotions through her facial expressions, so there wasn’t really a need for her to list out what she was feeling in her head for us.
It’s a very simple film, and it’s a genre that I’m not crazy about, but I’d make an exception for this one. In fact, I think it’s simplicity makes it even more effective than those sprawling epics about doom affairs, like Out of Africa and The English Patient. Loved it. 4.5/5.
How nice to return to classical films with a great one 😀