Brief Enouncter (1945)
Directed by David Lean
Opens October 12 for a weeklong run at Film Forum
The first act of Brief Encounter is a grueling anticlimax. Laura Jesson (Celia Howard) is meeting her almost-lover Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) for the last time, in the refreshment lounge of the train station that shuttles both back to their suburban married lives. First-time viewers don’t know they’re the main characters, let alone desperately in love, having been misdirected by an opening low-comedy segment in which station attendant Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway) flirts with faux-aristocratic barmaid Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey). Alec and Laura’s conversation seems comparatively unremarkable and benumbed and in any case is soon interrupted by the latter’s meddlesome neighbor Dolly Messitor (Everley Gregg). Laura faces her neighbor, pretending to hear her chattering recap of a day of mundane details, but exhaustedly thinks (in voiceover) “I wish you would stop talking.”
Laura comes into town once weekly for shopping, a change of her library book and a movie; she first meets Alec when she gets a piece of grit on her eye, which he handily extracts with a handkerchief. “What exciting lives we lead,” Alec cracks when they run into each other on the street a week later. The week after that, a chance encounter at a lunch spot (against the backdrop of an earnest, beaming and dreadful string quartet) leads to an afternoon at the pictures, where they burst into hysterical giggling together when the movie palace organist turns out to be the middle-aged cellist with cat-eye glasses.
Laura and Alec are the only two people in their circle who recognize the provincial awfulness around them. Their longing is an antisocial one: to be away from their peers, and away from England. Envisioning a life together, Laura lapses into a reverie of visions projected onto the unremarkable passing landscape outside her train home. “Then we were in Venice,” she says over visions of gondolas, “far away.” Possibilities of escape are closed off for Laura; the film, though not explicitly, is meant to be pre-WWII. Her postwar equivalent is Ann Todd in Lean’s underknown 1949 The Passionate Friends, who reunites with a former lover in Switzerland and whose despair over an almost-affair leads her—like Laura—to nearly throw herself into an oncoming train’s path at the climax. In Passionate Friends, Todd’s rescued at the last second by her finally sympathetic husband Claude Rains. Here, Laura grimly, dutifully saves herself, looking like she’s about to vomit.
Johnson’s performance is a marvel of misery. Laura falls in love with Alec in a single shot as he talks about his medical goals. “All good doctors must primarily be enthusiasts,” he says, and as he outline his ideas, his earnest, unpretentious idealism stirs Laura. The camera moves closer to her face as the contours of her skin pull slowly into a happier shape, one of the most remarkable pieces of purely reactive acting on record. Alec isn’t just a mirror for her own disgust, but someone who helps Laura realize she has an interior life unshareable with those around her. The discovery of an inner world—like Katharine Hepburn in Lean’s Summertime, who actually made it to Venice—is all well and good but thoroughly unhelpful for her daily life.
Brief Encounter contains a lot of conflicting ideas and possible interpretations. The six-times married Lean (then only on his second spouse) understands Laura’s urges, but the film has a gay cult following attuned to its shadow narrative (attributed to Noel Coward, whose play was greatly expanded for filming), in which the couple must hide their urges from the world around them much like criminalized gay men. Howard didn’t understand why his second ever film role didn’t end in consummation. (Lean told biographer Kevin Brownlow that Howard asked “They know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him, why doesn’t he fuck her?”) That frustration is intensely felt (if slightly enervating in its second act, which can only repeat itself), but Brief Encounter is most compactly understood as a monument to romance as antisocial pact, an appeal both specific to its time and place and one with universal lure.