(Co-Winner of the Palme D’or at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival)
Based on Noel Coward’s one-act play Still Life, Brief Encounter is the story about a married doctor and a suburban housewife where they engage into an affair that would have repercussions into their own lives. Directed by David Lean and screenplay by Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan, the film is an exploration into the world of British suburbia and its trappings as well as the oppressive lives of two people who would commit adultery. Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, and Margaret Barton. Brief Encounter is a powerful yet heartbreaking romantic film from David Lean.
Returning home from the train station, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) reflects on the past few weeks of her life when she met an idealistic doctor named Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) at the train station after she was nearly blinded by a piece of grit where Alec helped her. The two would meet again in various places as a friendship starts to grow between the two married individuals where they go to the cinema every Thursday as she’s always shopping and he’s working. Eventually, the relationship grows into a secretive love affair as they always arrive at the train station café where they each embark into separate trains. One day when the two decide to go on a trip to the country together where at the flat that belongs to a friend of Alec, the affair is nearly exposed when Alec’s friend Stephen (Valentine Dyall) visits forcing the two to make a decision when Alec gets an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The film is about an extramarital affair between two married people who are both in dull though loving marriages as they also have children. Though it starts out innocently between two different people, it grows into an affair where things eventually intensify as both are also filled with guilt with what they’re doing. A lot of this is told from the perspective of Laura Jesson as she reflecting on everything she had done as if she is telling the story to her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). Throughout the narration, she reveals what she is thinking as she also reveals the sense of paranoia as if people are watching her and Alec with disapproving eyes. The screenplay that David Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan create explore the dynamics in this affair at a time when these secret behaviors are frowned upon as both Laura and Alec try to hide it from friends and family.
David Lean’s direction is truly spellbinding for the way he creates a story that has an air of theatricality but also with a sense of melodrama that is engaging but also tragic. Lean is aware that these two people seem perfect for each other but due to the fact that they’re married to other people, he doesn’t judge them for engaging into this affair where a lot of it is innocent despite the circumstances they have. Through a lot of wide shots of the locations they’re in to some amazing medium shots that features the two people. Lean also knows when to break away a bit from that story by focusing on two other people in the train station bar in the form of a train station manager (Stanley Holloway) and a café manager (Joyce Carey) to give the film some humor. Another key element of Lean’s brilliance in the direction is opening the film with its end where he creates variations of what happened as it’s later told once again from Laura’s perspective. Overall, Lean creates a truly captivating drama that revels into the downfalls of an extramarital affair.
Cinematographer Robert Krasker does amazing work with the film‘s cinematography to set up the mood for some of the film‘s train station hallways with its lights along with more straightforward shots for some of the film‘s English locations. Editor Jack Harris does wonderful work with the editing by utilizing dissolves for the transition including a gorgeous fantasy montage where Laura looks out the window to see an array of what her life with Alec would be like. Art director Lawrence P. Williams does nice work with the set pieces created such as the train station café that Alec and Laura frequent at to the movie theater where they would see a film.
Sound editor Harry Miller does terrific work with the sound from the way the trains sound to the intimacy of the way the characters walk down the train station hallway. The film’s music is largely based on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 that is performed by Eileen Joyce on piano as it features an array of sweeping orchestral arrangements and Joyce‘s flourishing playing to play out the drama that happens in the film.
The casting is marvelous for the ensemble that is created as it includes appearances from Irene Handl as a cellist/theater organist, Valentine Dyall as Alec’s smarmy friend Stephen, Margaret Barton as a barmaid, Marjorie Mars as Laura’s friend Mary Norton, Everley Gregg as Laura’s very chatty friend Dolly Messiter, and Cyril Raymond as Laura’s kind though bland husband Fred. Other small but very memorable performances include Stanley Holloway as a charming station manager and Joyce Carey as a very vivacious café manager as they nearly steal the film from the leads.
Trevor Howard is amazing as the very kind and idealistic Alec Harvey who is intrigued by Laura’s life as he brings her comfort to her unhappy life. Celia Johnson is radiant as Laura Jesson as Johnson creates a character who is flawed but engaging in the way she tries to find an escape in her un-exciting life in this affair only to be ravaged with guilt over what she could be doing as it’s a truly hypnotic performance.
Brief Encounter is an extraordinary drama from David Lean and Noel Coward that features excellent performances from Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. It’s a film that truly delivers as a melodrama about love that can’t be fulfilled with characters the audiences can care for. While it may not have the epic scale of Lean’s later work, it is still a very compelling film for the way it plays out the drama and emphasis on these very complex characters. In the end, Brief Encounter is a rich yet mesmerizing film from David Lean.
David Lean Films: In Which We Serve - (This Happy Breed) - Blithe Spirit - Great Expectations (1946 film) - Oliver Twist (1948 film) - The Passionate Friends - Madeleine (1950 film) - The Sound Barrier - Hobson’s Choice - (Summertime) - The Bridge on the River Kwai - Lawrence of Arabia - Doctor Zhivago - Ryan’s Daughter - (Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor) - A Passage to India - (The Auteurs #75: David Lean)
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