It’s one of those classic old romantic stories. A man and woman meet randomly and fall in love. What’s so complicated about that? It ends up being a pretty tortuous predicament in Brief Encounter.
Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) happen to be at the same English railway station one evening. They begin chatting, talking, laughing, then meeting every Thursday and inevitably fall in love.
However, there’s a glitch to this budding romance – both of them are already married. Along with the guilt they’re feeling over this surprising turn of events, the moralities of the period are also playing havoc on their emotions. Laura is truly conflicted and while knowing full well she shouldn’t want to be with Alec, she does.
Based on the stage play Still Life, director David Lean crafts an engaging simple story compared to his later epic films.
It’s Johnson who really owns this movie though. It’s from Laura’s perspective we watch as the story unfolds. Through her feelings of highs from the passion and yearning to the cold blast of reality of the situation she’s facing, she gives an amazing performance. As she recounts the story through the eloquent narration accompanied by her tortured facial expressions is what really leaves an impact on me everytime I’ve seen this film.
The English 1945 setting gives the film a uniqueness to it. The social expectations of society at the time adds more pressure to the characters. Today it’s difficult to relate to the importance of it and having to be bound by those constraints, but in 1945 it was extremely important.
The restrictions on the film itself is also interesting. A film about two ‘adulters’ was not that acceptable a subject. Lean manages to get around the sexual question very subtly. So much so in fact viewers could debate on both sides of the argument as to whether the two ‘did or didn’t’.
Maybe Brief Encounter was the start of that popular association of romance with trains. We have that cliched image of a lone person standing at a platform watching a train carrying someone they love away. It feels like such an overused picture now, but watching Brief Encounter it still works beautifully.