David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) effectively brings the curtain down on one of Britain's most lucrative screen collaborations. The combination of Lean's cinematic prowess and Noel Coward's astute reflections and razor sharp wit had, by this time, yielded three previous cinema classics before this penultimate love story. And although Lean and Coward understood each other's strengths on an almost intuitive level, by 1945 Lean was understandably tired of being known almost exclusively as an adapter of the playwright's stage works for the movies. He wanted to branch out.
Brief Encounter is based on Coward's one act play, Still Life from his ensemble of skits brought together on the stage as Tonight At Eight Thirty, and co-starring Coward's longtime friend, Gertrude Lawrence. On stage, Still Life takes place on one set, with Coward's narration and Lawrence's finely wrought melodrama sustaining the audience's interest in the couple's illicit affair. For the film, the plot is greatly fleshed out, maneuvering the characters throughout Lancashire, Leeds, Bradford, Morecambe and Lancaster, as well as employing sets built expressly for the film on the back lot at Denham Studios; quite extraordinary when one considers the film went into production at the height of the conflict during WWII.
Brief Encounter is hardly the frothy screen romance audiences have come to expect. Nor is it particularly flattering to either the main or secondary characters, especially in its exploration of flawed male/female relationships. But in retrospect, Brief Encounter seems the creative summation of that lucrative behind the scenes partnership that arguably excels on every artistic level; the craftsmanship in the screenwriting by Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame reaching a level of concise perfection in just under 90 minutes, the acting by Celia Johnson ideally pitched for maximum pathos. On stage, Coward had played the part of Alec Harvey, perhaps rather unconvincingly with a moustache. On screen, these honors are given to Trevor Howard - hardly a leading man of his generation, but a marvelous actor, who thereafter saw his professional stock considerably rise with more plum roles coming his way on both sides of the Atlantic.
The story is one of illicit romance between a suburban house wife, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and dashing doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) whom Laura accidentally meets while waiting on the loading platform at the fictional Milford Station for her train to arrive. Unusual in its storytelling, we begin our narrative at the end of Laura and Alec's bittersweet affair. They are about to say their farewells for the last time when they are interrupted by Laura's nattering upper class snobbish friend, Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg). Oblivious to the scene she has just stumbled into, Dolly goes on and on about the superficialities of her day. The whistle announces the departure of Dr. Harvey's train and he leave the cafe without ever saying his proper goodbyes to Laura.
Afterward, Laura becomes faint and is attended to by Dolly who sees her home by train. Returning to her husband, Fred, (Cyril Raymond), a most congenial and good natured sort, Laura settles in for another night of quaint domesticity. Only this evening her heart isn't quite in it. While Fred does his crossword puzzle as usual, Laura quietly does her mending, in her head playing out a first person scenario of how to tell Fred where she's been. This scene fades into a prolonged flashback. An updraft blows a speck of cinder into Laura's eye at Milford Station. Entering the nearby depot cafe, Laura implores the cafe's manager, Myrtle Baggot (Joyce Carey) for some water to flush it out. Her attempts are quite unsuccessful. Thankfully, the ladies are in the presence of Dr. Alec Harvey who comes to Laura's aid with a wet napkin and removes the speck from her eye. The two strike up a friendly conversation that seems to go nowhere, as Laura and Dr. Harvey catch their respective trains to go home to their spouses.
But Laura suggests in her voice over that even from that brief meeting she secretly hoped to bump into Dr. Harvey again. And so she does, the following Thursday. Asked about her plans for the day, Laura confides to Alec that she is off to the cinema. He decides to play hooky from the hospital for the afternoon and joins her. Afterward the two share a friendly luncheon at one of the more fashionable restaurants in town and discover, to each other's amazement, that they have begun to fall in love. Alec makes Laura promise to meet him at the same restaurant next Thursday afternoon. And although Laura agrees, and does in fact keep this appointment - having looked forward to it all week long - Alec does not. Despondent, Laura wanders the streets and attends the cinema alone, suddenly becoming aware that she is quite lonely in these familiar surroundings. Returning to the depot cafe before her train's departure, Laura is met by an apologetic Alec who explains that he was unavoidable detained at the hospital.
But the next Thursday, Alec and Laura do meet again. They share a long walk and rowing across the canal in the park that ends rather comically when Alec falls into the lake. Drying off inside the small concession near the docks, Alec confesses his love for Laura. She reciprocates his affections, then tells him they must both be strong and deny their feelings for each other. They are not free to love. The following Thursday, Alec and Laura meet again. This time, Alec has borrowed his friend, Steven's (Valentine Dyall) car for a drive in the country, and also worked out an arrangement to use his apartment for the afternoon. Regrettably, Steven returns to his apartment ahead of schedule, just as Laura and Alec are about to consummate their love. Humiliated, Laura rushes out the back way and is never seen by Steven. But she has left her scarf behind and Steven confides in Alec, as an old friend should, that he is quite disappointed in him.
Their romance at an impasse, Alec agrees to take a job in South Africa where his brother lives and Laura repentantly goes home to Fred. We dissolve back to the Jesson's front parlor with Laura suddenly breaking down as Fred sympathetically looks on. In a scene expressly created for the film, Fred confides in Laura that her inner turmoil and distress these many past weeks has not gone unnoticed, then - in a most poignant conclusion - humbly thanks his wife for coming back to him. The two embrace, the sanctity of their marital bond once more secured.
Brief Encounter remains memorable today for a number of reasons; most directly for its frank and honest portrayal of two descent people caught in their great winter romance, but staunchly refusing to entirely give in to it. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard give emblematic performances as the lovers who sincerely struggle with their own emotions as well as their morality to do right by each other and their respective families.
Robert Krasker's stark, and arguably unromantic, cinematography provides the perfect counterbalance to this flawed narrative parable of imperfect love and very bad timing. In retrospect, the screenplay tends to be a tad episodic. It would have been nice, as example, to have a bit more back story on Laura and Fred, and even perhaps on Alec and his wife, who remains unnamed and is never seen in the film. What is well established in the film is that neither spouse is demonstrative or a destructive influence that would suggest to the audience the extramarital affair between Alec and Laura is warranted. In fact, quite the opposite is true, thus disproving one of cinema's great clichés and myths: that only bad people from unhappy households contemplate and indulge in infidelity.
Better still, Laura's sympathetic first person narration reveals to us just how self-destructive her own contemplations have been. Although Laura has given her love for Alec a lot of time, she has afforded even more thought to what her years with Fred have meant to them both. Hence, when Laura decides to return to Fred in the final reel it is hardly out of some simplistic sense of moral duty devoid of love, but rather because she has quite suddenly realized that her passionate fling with Alec has neither the longevity nor the history of her relationship with her husband to endure their fast approaching emeritus years. Brief Encounter frequently hovers on critic's top ten lists as one of the best movies ever made. Yet, in retrospect, its greatest does not become immediately apparent. It is only after the house lights have come up that we realize just how finely nuanced and expertly played the whole 'affair' has been.
Criterion's Blu-ray at last gives us a fitting hi-def transfer of this classy classic. The B&W image positively glows. This new 1080p transfer from elements restored by the BFI in 2008 exhibits a finely detailed gray scale, with beautifully reproduced grain and perfectly balanced contrast levels. Truly, there is nothing to complain about here. The audio is mono and has been very nicely cleaned up. Extras include another retrospective interview with Barry Day, an audio commentary that is both comprehensive and revealing, a 1971 BBC produced TV documentary on David Lean's career (that is in very rough shape), and a 2000 featurette on the making of this film. At present Criterion has made Brief Encounter available only as part of its David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set, along with This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and In Which We Serve. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)