One night in a refreshment room at a busy railway station, a gossipy older woman called Dolly (Everley Gregg) sees her acquaintance Laura (Celia Johnson) and a man sharing a tea. She invites herself to their table. The man introduces himself as Alec (Trevor Howard), politely buys Dolly a tea, and soon leaves to catch his train. Laura seems a bit ill, and tries to sleep on the way home, disappointing the talkative Dolly. She offers to walk Laura home, but is turned down. She’ll never know it, but Dolly was there for the most devastating moment in Laura’s life.
Made in 1945 but set in pre-war Britain, Brief Encounter is a story of doomed romance. About how love can appear at the wrong time and in the wrong place and be no match for the societal and moral pressures people live under. It seems a bleak subject for a country still very much feeling the devastation of war, but perhaps this was an audience especially open to feeling of disappointment that comes when life prevents you from going down the path you would have wanted. Perhaps this movie was even a cry for a return to normalcy, but I doubt that.
Laura and Alec’s meeting is innocuous enough: while waiting at the station one day, Laura gets some grit in her eye. She runs into the refreshment room, where Alec explains that he is a doctor and helps extract the grit. Over the coming weeks, they run into each other several more times, eventually introducing themselves and realizing they both make trips into town on Thursday. Finding each other charming, they eventually start meeting up every Thursday, eating meals and going to movies together. Surely enough, after a few weeks they’ve fallen in love.
Laura and Alec are both married with children. Laura even mentions having shared a meal with a doctor to her husband, who acts totally unperturbed. However, that relief is short-lived and Laura continues to wrestle with the guilt she feels for her time spent with Alec, which grows even fiercer when friends recognize her one day. Does Laura have what it takes to live a secret double life? Will she raise a middle finger to society and leave her husband? Or is the weight of this new romance simply too much to bear?
I was drawn to Brief Encounter because, aside from using Criterion Month as an excuse to finally see the best movies of all time, I was interested in seeing more from director David Lean. I know Lean for his massive epics The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia so I thought it was interesting that one of his most acclaimed films seemed to small in scale. The movie is, as you might expect, gorgeously shot in black and white, and Lean’s love of big, powerful steam engine trains is very much on display. But the strongest similarity to those two movies I noticed was Lean’s ability to get the audience into the main character’s headspace.
In The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia we saw how the absurdity of war drove charismatic leaders into shocking places and Brief Encounter fits in with this tradition, even though it shows a different sort of madness. It does cheat a little bit by using narration, but this film sets out to make you experience Laura’s dilemma and does so beautifully. If you don’t fall in love with Alec with Laura, it’s probably because you’ve fallen in love with her. And given how quaint the details of this tryst would seem on paper, it does an amazing job selling what should feel like a melodramatic ending.
Although I set out to learn about David Lean, I think Brief Encounter taught me more about its writer, Noel Coward. Stories about forbidden love are common in queer cinema, and knowing that the person who wrote the short story upon which this is based was himself a gay man certainly adds another layer to this particular onion. My every instinct was screaming for these two characters to run away together, but the risk was too great, the cost too high. And so that ending, which might feel cathartic or hopeful, in this context is a bitter pill to swallow. Sometimes, love does not conquer all. Sometimes, you just have to make do. Keep a stiff upper lip.