Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Most Accurate Name Ever

Film: Brief Encounter
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Romance is not a genre I tend to favor. Actually, that’s only partly true. I genuinely dislike romantic comedies as a general rule, but I’ll watch a good romance if the mood strikes me. Note the operative word in that sentence: a good romance. So I gave David Lean’s first great movie, Brief Encounter a shot.

This story couldn’t be simpler or more classically romantic and tragic. Two married people meet, fall for each other, and then go their separate ways. This is not a spoiler—if you’re paying attention, you know exactly what is happening here in the first ten minutes of the film, since the entire story is shown in flashback.

In the central role is Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, a simple housewife with a husband and two kids. She’s relatively well-to-do, spending her days in London doing the shopping, having lunch out and sometimes taking in a movie. She spends at least part of her day around the train station, and it is here that she meets Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). Alec comes to her assistance when she gets something in her eye and he extracts it. Later the same day, they find themselves in the same crowded restaurant and share a table, then go to a movie together. They agree to meet at the same place a week later.

They continue to meet at the train platform and spend their Thursday afternoons together, and it soon becomes evident to both of them (and to us) that the two have fallen deeply for each other despite both being married. They both realize what has happened and the only real possible outcome for this love, but still it continues, because the two can’t stay away from each other.

The pair are discovered twice; first by a couple of her friends in a restaurant and then later when the pair retire to an apartment owned by one of Alec’s friends. Based on these two occurrences, Alec reaches a major decision in his life—to head to South Africa to help create a new hospital. They plan to make the most of the time they have left before he heads off half a world away. The immediate belief here is that the two will probably never see each other again, but if they do, it still will never be the same.

There’s a sense of tragedy around the pair, and we know right away that they are doomed from the start. We know nothing about Alec’s wife and kids. We know precious little about Laura’s kids, but we do see her husband a couple of times. He seems like a stereotype for wealthy and boring, which may well be the reason Laura consented to this sort of affair in the first place, because of her desire for something more.

Despite other members of the cast, only Laura and Alec are fully realized characters here, and that’s as it should be. Other characters are there to judge our two lovers, as foils for their behavior, or as a reason to make a particular decision like Alec does at the end. There’s no space here for anyone else.

The story, as mentioned above, comes to us via a flashback with only spotty glimpses at the present. Laura is, throughout her mental recounting of this affair, wrestling with the reality of her life, comparing Alec on the one side and her husband and children on the other side. Each possibility pulls her in different directions.

Where this film fails for a modern audience is in the timidity of the romance. The two attempt to spend a bit of a night together, but otherwise, they are nearly as chaste as a pair of strangers. There are a couple of passionate kisses toward the latter half of the movie, but otherwise, the romance is actually a little tepid. A few stolen kisses, some smoky glances, and idle talk are difficult to read as romantic on any sort of sustained basis. Remade today, our twin heroes would be splitting the cost of a cheap motel.

Regardless, there’s a sense of tragedy and loss running through this film that is very effective. This is David Lean before he became the master of the grand epic film. What comes as little surprise is that many of the themes he explores in larger, grander films are here as well. Many of Lean's epics focused on the individual story or the story of people together in the middle of a grand sweep. This is that, without the grand sweep.

Brief Encounter lives up to its name. It’s a short one, but lovingly filmed with careful pacing, if too bland in terms of almost everyone in the cast. Watch it with someone you love.

Why to watch Brief Encounter: Romances don’t get more romance-y.
Why not to watch: A couple of mooning kisses equals a lifetime of angst.


  1. i totally _adore_ the »timidity of the romance«, as you put it – another time, another mindset, and it's great to have this opportunity to get a glimpse of a past that, in some aspects, is so different from the present

  2. Yes, that. For modern films, In the Mood for Love reminds me a lot of that sort of feel. As a viewer of both films, I wanted nothing more than for these people to run off together.

  3. Nice review.

    I can't prove it with examples here, offhand, but I think that for me at least, unconsummated love affairs in the movies are, in the end, more powerful than the other kind. If the physical side of the relationship is tepid in Brief Encounter, then what accounts for the power of the film? That is, what emerges from the conjunction of tepidity and tragedy?

  4. Excellent question. I agree with you completely--I don't get all excited about movie sex scenes. Most of the time, I just find them gratuitous. Unconsummated affairs create such a sense of longing, such a sense of need that, for me, there's a continued need to see how it will turn out.

    The physical side is tepid in Brief Encounter, which makes the emotional side so much more powerful, complex and interesting. That, in my opinion, is the power. It transcends the physical, the grunting animalistic part of the relationship and creates something deeper, more powerful, and thus more tragic.

    The best example I can think of is In the Mood for Love. So beautiful, so sad.

  5. I think given the normal state of affairs for this sort of people, they are already on deep deep water. For them to kiss and declare their love, as innocent as that may seem to us is already half way consumated to them. Besides it is the thought of it here rather than the act that matter. Mentally she is pretty shaken.

    1. Oh, I agree completely. It's not what we might be used to, but it's certainly something that might be the most meaningful thing in both of their lives. That's honestly what makes the whole thing work.

  6. I guess your mileage on being swept up by this varies by how much you enjoy romantic films. As you mentioned you're not particularly fond of them so the longing of the pair didn't capture you too much, me I'm a sucker for this sort of thing and it was the very properness of their ardor that made it a deeper view.

    Trevor Howard is good but it's Celia Johnson who blew me away. Here she is, a simple woman-settled and even to herself content so she thinks-who has this tremendously unsettling thing enter her life. Being who she is she wouldn't throw herself into it with abandon and just the small liberties she allows herself rock her world. She communicates all of that with small gestures and furtive expressions, it's a beautifully observed piece of work. It's also from another time and a cheap shack up would have destroyed the feeling of the picture. It's a tough balancing act to do well, just look at the Meryl Streep/Robert De Niro reworking of this, Falling in Love (or Falling Flat more aptly) to see how tough. Lean, his cinematographer & musical director-both add so much) manage it expertly.

    1. I admit I found this a bit bland, but I think it's good for what it is. I like it as a film that really couldn't possibly be remade today. It's very much a film of its time, a snapshot of its period.

      It is a delicate film, and it has to be.