Director David Lean is best known for filming romantic epics as lengthy as they are beautiful (Doctor Zhivago – 3 hrs. 20 min., Lawrence of Arabia – 3 hrs. 48 min.), so it comes as quite a surprise that he managed to capture arguably more romance than all of his films combined in a mere ninety minutes with his moody monochromatic 1945 classic, Brief Encounter. I honestly cannot believe it took me this long to see this movie, as I’ve always considered myself a David Lean fan. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, but for one reason or another, I never got around to watching this Criterion Collection classic until today. And now that I’ve finally seen it, I would argue that this film is every bit as good as any of his work.
Based on a play by Noel Coward (who also produced the film), the story involves a month-long love affair between a bored housewife (Celia Johnson) and an equally bored doctor (Trevor Howard). Both characters lead their lives in a monotonous routine, but by mere happenstance manage to encounter each other and inevitably make an indellible impression on one another. Over the course of the film, the two doomed lovers (quite tragically) never manage to fully consummate their love affair. In fact, I think their affair stops at first base. I wonder if the film’s moralistic overtones were due to the cinematic morays at the time, or if perhaps it had more to do with the fact that the film was just so damned British. It’s of no consequence, however, as there are enough Freudian sequences of trains to keep the sexual tension more than palpable.
plenty of steam and trains going through tunnels, if you know what I mean
When I say the film is British, I mean that the film is British. This might put off some American viewers (I would presuppose the same kind of viewers who might be put off by black and white films or subtitles), but I say “fuck them”–they have no business watching this movie anyway. Any viewer with half a brain and a heart will quickly overlook the British contexts of the film and see the story for what it is (undeniably honest) and the characters for who they are (undeniably human).
Hands down, the best thing about the film is Celia Johnson’s performance as the tortured Laura. In fact, the film is worth watching for her performance alone–she was absolutely brilliant. Primarily a stage actress, she detested acting in films, but when Noel Coward himself read the part to her, she consented to taking on the role and was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. (She ultimately lost to Olivia de Havilland, which I find highly suspect considering the two actresses bear a striking resemblance to each other; I can’t help but wonder if the Oscar voters confused the two. No knock on Olivia de Havilland–Celia Johnson was just that good.) There are several wonderful moments of internal monologue from Johnson’s character, such as when she’s contemplating her conflicting emotions about the affair:
This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.
In fact, the writing in the movie is almost as good as the acting. Consider this heartbreaking exchange between the two paramours:
Him: “I do love you–so very much. I love you with all my heart and soul.”
Her: “I want to die. If only I could die…”
Him: “If you’d die, you’d forget me. I want to be remembered.”
Holy fucking shit… how bad ass is that!?! But then again, what is a love affair without passion and regret? Not much of a love affair, I reckon.
The film also manages to capture what very well might be the single most poignant parting scene in cinematic history. The last moment to be shared by the two lovers is brutally interrupted in the most obnoxious manner, and upon having to leave, he simply places his hand on her shoulder before he walks out of her life forever. When he touches her shoulder, I fucking feel it. I can feel the anguish and the heartache–the fleeting passion and finality of it all–and I swear to God, it hurts me almost as much as it hurts her. That’s how powerful this scene is. And that’s how good this movie is.