Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway
The grit in the eye. The swirling piano music. The cut glass English tones. It can only be “Brief Encounter”, the timeless story of forbidden love which celebrates its 70th anniversary this month. But, when a film’s been around for that long, why go and see a newly restored version? After all, we know all about it. Don’t we?
As far as the plot is concerned, we probably do. It’s the one where Laura (Celia Johnson) is waiting for a train and some grit gets in her eye. It’s removed by the charming local GP, Alec (Trevor Howard) and the two strike up an acquaintance that snowballs into love. There’s only one problem. They’re married to other people. So they have to choose between doing the right thing or following their hearts.
Set in the 21st century, it would be a no-brainer. But this is 1945, divorce is still hard to come by and socially unacceptable, so their romance has to be kept a secret, despite most of their meetings being in public. When we see them at the start of the film, they’re at a table in the station tea room, their most frequent meeting place. We can’t hear what they’re saying but neither looks happy – and then they’re interrupted by a third person, somebody who knows one of them and is completely oblivious of having shattered an important moment. We know, but we just don’t know the how or the why, so the film goes back to the start and unfolds the events leading up to that it.
For anybody lucky enough to have seen Todd Haynes’ “Carol” at the London Film Festival last month, a bell will be ringing loud and clear. The construction of that opening scene and the narrative thread of both films are pretty much identical. The remarkable thing is that they work equally well in both of them, despite the 70 year age difference. And, of course, both stories are about forbidden love, equally scandalous in their own settings.
Surprisingly for its day, “Brief Encounter” is seen very much through Laura’s eyes, which makes it more her story than Alec’s. We never see anything of his domestic set-up, but we see plenty of Laura’s home life with her husband and children. We hear her thoughts too, so that sometimes the camera concentrates purely on Johnson’s face, following her expressions, while her voice narrates the scene. In that way, it’s a very contemporary story, with the woman being the stronger, more mature character, who actually leads the decision the couple have to make about their future.
Yet, despite Laura’s practicality, there’s a dreamlike quality to the film: most of the action taking place in her thoughts and memories. “Brief Encounter” was made while World War II was drawing to a close, and released after the end yet, from the film, you’d never know that there had been a war. This is an England where the trains all run on time, where everybody is incredibly polite and with no rationing, soldiers or any sign of war at all. It’s a piece of escapism, a very moral one – and it’s Laura’s.
Ultimately, it’s all about love, passion and duty – and it’s no spoiler to say that duty wins. And it’s that ending that makes it seem less contemporary for today’s audiences, because the social conventions have changed radically in 70 years. That conclusion keeps the film’s feet very much in the mid-40s, making “Brief Encounter” very much of its time, as well as being relevant to present day audiences. But, at the same time, it’s a story that can only ever be described as timeless.
The 70th anniversary restoration of Brief Encounter is released in selected cinemas starting on Friday, 6 November, including the BFI in London where it plays as part of the LOVE season.