Friday, April 29, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Brief Encounter (1945)

Brief Encounter (1945) ****
Directed by: David Lean.
Written by: David Lean & Ronald Neame & Anthony Havelock-Allan based on the play by Noel Coward.
Starring: Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey), Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby), Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson), Everley Gregg (Dolly Messiter), Marjorie Mars (Mary Norton), Margaret Barton (Beryl Walters).

Why is it that the greatest screen romances always seem to have the lovers separated at the end? Think Casablanca (1943) with Rick urging Ilsa to get on that plane and leave him behind, or Gone with the Wind (1939) with Rhett telling Scarlett he doesn’t give a damn (and as any guy will tell you, despite the sequel written years later, Rhett ain’t coming back). David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) deserves comparisons to both of those films – it ranks among the greatest screen romances in history, and once again, ends with the lovers apart (before you complain about spoilers, just remember the movie is called Brief Encounter – had they ended up together, it wouldn’t have been brief).

Every Thursday, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) takes the train from her small English town into the city to do some shopping, grab lunch and catch a matinee before heading home. It is a good way to break up her domestic routine. One evening, while waiting for the train home, she gets something in her eye – and cannot seem to get it out. The handsome Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) offers her assistance. He helps her, they take their separate trains’ home, and don’t think twice about it. The following Thursday, they run into each other at a restaurant – it is packed, he has nowhere to sit, so they have lunch together. He tells her that like her, he is happily married with two kids, and that on Thursdays, he comes into town to work at the hospital. It’s a good way to break up his calm GP practice he has the rest of the week. That day, he decides to play hooky, and come with her to the movies. After that, they are powerless to stop the attraction between them.

Brief Encounter is really a story about repressed love. Laura and Alec love each other – that is clear from that first afternoon onwards. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love their respective spouses. Since the movie is told from Laura’s point of view, we never meet Alec’s wife or kids. But with Laura, we see the kind of calm, cool affection happily married couples have with each other between her and her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). It isn’t an exciting life, but it is a happy one. They have a marriage built on love and trust – and until Alec comes along, Laura doesn’t even know she’s missing anything. She is content.

But Alec changes that. Perhaps its nothing more than infatuation and lust – a lust that after all is never really consummated in the movie. Relationships have different stages to them – and to some, nothing beats that first little while in a relationship, where you cannot stop thinking about the other person, and want to spend all their time together. Perhaps that’s why Brief Encounter works so well – and why we get the sense that neither Laura or Alec are ever going to forget their brief time together, and may even consider each other the “love of their lives”. There is none of the messiness, the arguments that come along with real relationships – just happiness. And then when its over, it’s devastating.

David Lean was a great director, who for most people will forever be remembered for his epics. The final five films of his career - The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984) – were all sweeping historical epics of at least three hours in running time. Here though, in his first real solo success, he proves that he was a director just as good on a small, intimate scale. Brief Encounter runs only 85 minutes, but Lean’s direction of it is just about perfect. There is something about black and white movies that is simply more romantic than color ones – and Lean uses this to his advantage. He finds the romance in everyday locations like the spacious movie theater, the little restaurant, and especially the smoky train station. He switches to soft focus for their trip to the country, giving it the feeling of a dream. Lean, who was comfortable using a large canvas, proves he is equally comfortable on a smaller scale.

They don’t really make movies like Brief Encounter anymore. Inarguably, modern audiences may find a film like this – with no sex – to be quaint and old fashioned. And in some ways, that is true. But for me, Brief Encounter is cinematic romance at its finest.

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