Brief Encounter (1945)

Directed: David Lean

Produced: Noel Coward (from his play Still Life)

Production Company: Cineguild/J. Arthur Rank

Written: David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame

Photographed: Robert Krasker


With: Celia Johnson: Laura Jesson

Trevor Howard: Alec Harvey

Joyce Carey: refreshment stand waitress

Stanley Holloway: Guard


One has thoughts about this movie’s modernity, and how dated it could have seem to today’s younger audiences that might find it puzzling that the two lovers had ample time to go to bed and they didn’t. It was not a Platonic relationship either. The two had real passion for each other, they kissed passionately, but when the opportunity offered, they refrained from going all the way–or were prevented by the arrival of Alex’s friend who had lent him his apartment for the assignation.

The reason for that is explained that these were decent, honest folk who knew very well what they were doing from the start. Celia felt the guilt more intensely and the doctor, who was the aggressor–as circumstances dictated that he should–finally saw her point and felt guilt on his own in turn. He knew he was making her miserable and that his love was bringing disaster on her. Thence, he decides to leave her and take the job that he was offered in Africa.

Despite the sentimental nature of this melodrama, Lean and his collaborators used restraint and let the actors, especially Celia Johnson to work out their characters’ torment, which is as much of a moral dilemma as it is a romance. Of course romance it is. The word pops up in one of Celia’s husband, who hunts for words for his crossword puzzle and asks his wife about a line from Keats (“When I fears that I may cease to be”) sonnets, and the word “romance” fits. It is a node, and it signifies that he had some subconscious knowledge of what happens. He does finally realize that his wife had lived in a “dream,” and wisely he welcomes back when she is finished with her ordeal and the doctor is gone.

Much has been made about the photographic wizardry of this movie and the Rachmaninoff music (Piano Concerto #2) which establishes the atmosphere and tone. The oncoming train is like a giant monster that rushes toward Celia to disturb her peaceful suburban life, and it also is the potential means of her liberation, when, at the end, when her lover is gone, she just misses falling on the tracks to kill herself.

Also much is made of the economy of the movie. It is compact, fast paced, and immensely focused, for it is told from entirely from Laura’s point of view, in a flashback voice-over. It begins with the last scene at the café where they part, while a garrulous woman rushes in to talk, the doctor leaves, and the story unfolds going back to the beginning. In the end, it seems that this is the technique that allows the viewer to be totally immersed in Celia’s psyche and understand her hesitations, moments of bliss, and despair and guilt. The flashback technique is also a tool that clarifies the mystery of “romance.” It is neither Platonic nor mere carnal desire that binds them together. One might venture to call it love–though not the kind a brother feels for his sister. This is a genuine passion, and, paradoxically, it is the doctor who makes the most important moves–for he is the first to confess to her (“you know what has happened, don’t you?”), and the first to tell her that he is ruining her life and they must separate.

The heroine is not Madame Bovary, not Rosy Shaughnessy, not Lara. All those heroines sere victims of their passions; they all were guilty, not just of feelings, but of actual adultery. They all suffered severely for their trespasses. Laura is the only one who is strong. The word “decent” might fit too, but it is outdated; today liaisons are a dime a dozen; they are so common that jumping into bed with a stranger is an expected routine. Laura Jesson finds deception and her lying to a decent man–her husband (who is not Charles Bovary)–an unbearably reprehensible act. She hovers between temptation and a strong decision. Perhaps, had the doctor stayed, she would have become a victim of the relativistic escape valve that characterizes modern couples. But the doctor is decent too. And though Trevor Howard, the actor, reputedly did not understand that he had to play his part that way,[1] the man he embodies, Doctor Alec Harvey does. This is a story of an intense romantic involvement that only between two married people which only takes the first step. It is an affair between two mature human being caught in the whirl of something they did not know they were susceptible to. How suddenly can one love a stranger? The subject has come up in countless movies (name some), but the results are almost always unsatisfactory. Is the end of the affair to be considered a happy ending? Morally speaking, yes. Romantically speaking, also yes–for this is a real romance between two passionate lovers who, unlike Paolo and Francesca[2] (and countless others) did not end up in hell. But they did experience that one unmistakable and sweeping feeling that comes around only about once or twice in a lifetime, and, almost always, it is more memorable if it remains unfulfilled–if it only is permitted to dwell on the realm of dream, as Laura’s husband wisely observes when he sees her so distraught back home and he discerns an anomaly, although he does not know the details. That is noble of him, for he understands that a woman, even one that has the most refined sense of duty as wife and mother, can be tempted. And temptation is cruel, tearing at one’s heart and self-esteem. A woman deceiving–and Laura had to tell some lies– suffers not only from a wounded heart; she is shamed and aware of the deception that poisons her life and threatens her uneventful but steady domestic happiness. This may be considered folly in a hedonistic society such as ours, unfortunately fed by too many adulterous affairs in the movies for over one century now, although literature has its share with the likes of Becky Sharp, Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina, to mention some of the most prominent. Cecilia Johnson as Laura remains dignified through her ordeal, though she is clearly traumatized. For a while, it seems that there is no exit, aside from self-inflicted death. She cannot run away with the doctor, and he finally realizes that–for it takes a while for him to do so that the mistake is shared, that may be he is the most responsible, for he is the one who had asked for a second meeting, and the one who admits that “something has happened.” The movie demonstrates the perils of accident, and accidental attraction, for one never knows what circumstance will bring to a tranquil life, a painful–albeit ecstatic for a few moments–conflict. Here we have the carpe diem dictum reversed. That doctrine, known since antiquity but still practiced (Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, for instance, demonstrates the lengths if can take), in both movies and in life. That style precludes scruples for momentary enjoyment–for the most part. And the heroes of such stories are usually amoral. But in Lean’s movies–for it was his movie–that borderline, when crossed, only inflicts pain and suffering. That is why in Ryan’s Daughter, so vilified by critics, we find the misery of a woman who has crossed the line, and is punished, and she knows, eventually, that she is in the wrong path. Celia Johnson, as Laura, is stronger, acutely distressed, genuinely in love, and escapes with her life and happiness, though the “dream” may have unhinged her forever. That we will never know. But her conflict shows clearly that she has experienced an unusual level of awareness, for she is now passed the test imposed on her by the inferno of passion, the illogical, alluring knowledge that there is something beyond reason and a blandly happy everyday marital existence. She knows she can be stirred to feelings that transport her to another level of existence, but those, as is well known to humankind, male or female, wound the most. One cannot avoid moral perils when one is traveling through life. The paradox is that the worst are also the best. But their duration must be brief, otherwise they can destroy the person in question along with the innocent bystanders. That is why the title fits so well–Brief Encounter; much better than Still Life, which is not bad, though it connotes a different set of circumstances. Still Life implies inability to move, Brief Encounter makes it plain that a deeply affecting and almost celestial adventure must have its end. That is the ultimate lesson of this movie.

[1] See Brownlow, David Lean, p. 199.

[2] Reference to the two lovers tormented for adultery in Dante’s Inferno by being blown about in a circle by a sweeping gale.