(directed by David Lean, 1945)
Tonight, having a desire for something simple, I sat down with a glass of wine and some white chocolate and watched Brief Encounter. It’s only the second time I’ve seen it. And, oh goodness, it’s such a beautiful film. Shot on an austerity budget, predominantly in and around (the fictional) Milford Junction station, it doesn’t immediately strike you as having the ingredients for one of the great romances. The characters are as archaic and clipped as their accents, battling back the ungovernable forces of lust in defence of what is right and proper. Like The Remains of the Day, much of what’s important is in fact not spoken. And, like Casablanca, the conclusion has a bittersweet quality that lingers wistfully, long after the film finishes.
Marshalling their stiff upper lips, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard bring magic to Noel Coward’s script, and all is played out against a billow of steam from an old engine, underlaid by the whistles and screeches of the railway.
I wondered if he’d say, ‘I met such a nice woman today’… And suddenly I knew he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t say a word. And then the first feeling of danger swept over me…
What particularly touches me about Brief Encounter is that it upends all our modern expectations of romance. This is a film about an ordinary man and an ordinary woman, both unconsciously seeking something extraordinary. When that something finally arrives, it gives them the prospect of more complete and more damaging change than they could ever have imagined. It offers them the chance to throw away everything they have and to take a risk on the unknown. It invites them to hazard their marriages, their children’s happiness and their social niche.
In a modern film, the lovers would take that risk, because in a modern romance, almost without exception, love will bring fulfilment in the end even if it first brings tragedy. But this film takes place in a world closer to our own, where an affair can shatter lives. And Laura and Alec realise that, Laura most of all: she looks about her and realises that greater things are at stake. She values what she’s been offered, but ultimately steps back and acknowledges that to betray her family would be to betray herself. To come that far – to the precipice, indeed – and then to move away shows, to my mind, a greater strength of character than to sacrifice everything in pursuit of a selfish and, perhaps, fleeting passion. Paradoxically, it also shows the power of love, whose strength we only realise when we’re battling against it. Laura doesn’t end in a very happy place, but there are signs that things will get better: that her husband Fred, who initially seems happiest with the crossword for company, notices her pain and wants to help. That final scene is one of the most beautiful, tentative expressions of love in cinema, as her husband suggests that perhaps he’s been only too conscious of her turmoil, but is too well-bred to make a scene. All he says is, ‘Thank you for coming back to me‘. Exquisite.
I don’t know the story behind the film; I don’t know why it was made. But I wonder whether it was intended to remind English men and women that, whatever dizzying experiences they may have had in recent years, it was time to recognise that they now had duties beyond individual gratification. Its timing is telling, perhaps. It was released in 1945, at the end of a long, bleak, lonely war, when thousands of Lauras may have been tempted.
Ultimately it’s a very English film. It’s a portrait of a class that doesn’t really exist any more – of people who don’t really exist any more. Its morals and values don’t chime with our sentiments nowadays. But it’s funny how, as we move further away from that very emotionally-restrained society, the fascination with vintage and nostalgia of all kinds becomes ever stronger.