Opening Up a Treasure: Brief Encounter
U.K. / Cineguild / 1945 / Black and White / 86 minutes / Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
The story is set in Great Britain right after the war. Food rationing was taking place. Many were struggling to adjust to this environment. Women were expected to give up their war time jobs to the returning servicemen. Some faced additional hardships relating to a weakened peacetime economy.
But this film is not about that.
Britons used to "doing what's expected" were asked to return to what might have been for many an unfamiliar life of domesticity, only to find that a difficult adjustment as well.
This film isn't about that either.
What it is about are two outwardly nondescript strangers living rather ordinary lives who meet by chance at a railway station's cafe. After a purely unintentional "courtship", they fall deeply in love despite both being in other committed relationships. This coming together of two unique, highly intelligent and caring souls is spellbinding. This is in part due to the many sublimely observed, delicately portrayed precious details of manners, budding emotions and lovely surroundings. The relationship becomes deeper and deeper almost as if by magic since we are practically unaware of the ever so subtle emotional transformations taking place. By the time we fully realise how deeply they feel for one another we're as enchanted with them as they are with each other. As their time together progresses, it's almost as if they're playing a different kind of board game whereby the only objective is to keep it going as long as possible while minimising the disappointment doing so might bring to others. Their observances of the people and places around them have a fresh and witty vibrancy that we enjoy and want to share in almost as much as they do. Together they seem to manage a more open, less self-conscious relationship than the ones they have back home but never are those other commitments diminished in the slightest, quite the contrary as we will witness in their story's heartbreaking final moments together.
This perfect union of souls is reflected in the performances as well. Celia Johnson totally inhabits housewife Laura Jesson leaving the slightest trace of "acting" completely absent from her layered, carefully nuanced portrayal. Her performance includes a penetratingly insightful narration informed by Laura's selfless thoughts for others and the guilt expressed so genuinely for those newly found emotions she valiantly tries to cope with. In complete harmony with Johnson is Trevor Howard's Dr. Alec Harvey, who characterises to perfection a first class gentleman, someone who will sacrifice for another without hesitation but will never act out of purely sentimental reasons. Both will make mistakes and have regrets allowing the actors to further "humanise" their parts making them more distinctive and identifiable.
The last components of a perfect alchemy are Director David Lean and Screenwriter Noel Coward. The source material is Coward's one-act play Still Life which slightly reveals itself in some of the overtly theatrical characters at the cafe. Nevertheless, there's an abundance of intelligence on display: Literary and poetry references are everywhere. The compelling dialogue between our couple and Laura's innermost thoughts conveyed in her narration are subtle but dramatically rich and always perfectly balanced between head and heart, sentiment and realism. Coward's creative genius even extends to the movies his couple chooses between and a trailer they watch together... all fictional. Lean's masterful direction is ever so respectful of Coward's enlightened screenplay: Understated, assured but unobtrusive. This is before he would embark on his more ambitious directorial projects for which he attempted to effectively combine romance and adventure on a grand scale. Lean's epics would maintain an attention to their historical setting of equal importance to the other elements mentioned. Occasionally these films were overall artistic successes like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai, sometimes not so much i.e. Dr. Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter. Brief Encounter's touching, poetic simplicity is perhaps Lean's greatest reward both to himself and for his audience.
Brief Encounter is a masterpiece of the most fundamental emotions of the human heart, not only for those shared between the main characters but for all of their environment's people and places. While the subject may not address hardships faced due to the war's aftermath, it does concern needs of a universal nature and offers profound insights into how one might cope with those conflicted internal feelings. Besides, this film is fundamentally British in another sense: The impossibly difficult choice made at the end of their story that leads to the tragically sad but inevitable separation, is committed purely for the sake of others. If they hadn't been so influenced by a culture of concern over how others think and feel, perhaps they might have run off together. On the other hand, if they weren't British, these two probably wouldn't have fallen in love in the first place.
Brief Encounter is a Turner Classic Movies Treasure of the Month. It is scheduled to air on U.S. TCM (updated) Friday, April 21 at 7:15pm PST.
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