Brief Encounter (1945)
Written by Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame
Directed by David Lean
David Lean was born into the Quaker faith in 1908 in the pastoral environs of Surrey, England. While in school, Lean was deemed too dreamy and not up to snuff with the level of academics he was expected to master. At age 18, he entered into an apprenticeship under his father’s accountancy firm. At age ten, Lean had been given a Brownie box camera, and this event was looked back at by the director as one of the most formative experiences in his life. The next formative moment came when at age 15, Lean’s father left his family. Lean would follow suit with his first wife and child. He would remarry five additional times, and friends claimed he slept with around 1,000 women in his lifetime.
Laura Jesson is a middle-class woman whose marriage has meandered in routine and dull territory. She is sitting at home across from her husband as he scribbles on a crossword, and Laura’s mind drifts to an extramarital relationship she has been carrying on for months that just ended. Like many women of her time, Laura takes a train into the city where she does some shopping and attends a movie at the cinema. She has a meeting with a doctor named Alec Harvey, who she keeps running into over the next few weeks. They eventually have lunch together, then attend the movies, and this becomes a regular routine. Laura finds herself thinking about Alec when they are apart, and soon it becomes clear they have fallen in love with each other.
Lean and his writers, especially Noël Coward, handle marital infidelity with a deft hand. This would come to be the archetype for dramas with this plot, two taken people repeatedly meeting, their love growing until they inevitably have to face the reality of where their two lives intersect. Lean presents a story that could be happening at any time and is very subtle in stylizing things. We have voice-over narration as Laura recalls her recently-ended affair. Lean also frames the train station where so many of their encounters’ start and end and the city at night with a noir-ish tinge. The director is very aware of light & shadow, using them masterfully and giving Brief Encounter such a different tone than you might expect with a romance.
By modern standards, Brief Encounter is highly restrained, but at the time, the fact that it would speak so honestly and without condemnation of the couple in the affair ruffled some religious institutions. The picture very carefully lays out the tension between Laura and her domestic life as a wife & mother and the escape she finds in her time with Alec. There is immense guilt that overtakes Laura when she comes home a little late to see one of her children was severely injured during her day out of the house.
Laura and Alec are juxtaposed with the train station employees, Albert the stationmaster & shop owner Myrtle. They flirt openly and without shame, playing a game between each other of resistance but, through innuendo, we learn they regularly meet up and spend the night together. This raises questions about class and propriety in society. The working class & the poor are often invisible as individuals and therefore get away with more. The upper-middle-class live in a panopticon with their peers, forced to follow a track and not step outside the social boundaries. Laura and Alec cannot give in to their passions because the cost would be devastating to every aspect of their lives.
This is a film about romance that isn’t bogged down by modern cliches. There’s no clumsiness or meet-cute moments. The story is centered on genuine human emotions and experiences. We truly come to understand Laura by the end of the movie, sympathizing with the difficult situation she is in and how resigned she is to the inevitable melancholy of her married life. She doesn’t dislike her husband or resent her motherhood, Laura loves everything about her family, but she misses the feeling of being alive that her staid upbringing and life has held at a distance. Brief Encounter perfectly captures that feeling of long-distance romance, the constant yearning and questioning of the value of being with someone whom you can’t touch every day.