David Lean is probably most famous for his legendary epics like Lawrence of Arabia, which is why I was so intrigued to watch his 1945 film Brief Encounter for the first time. This is the opposite of epic. As the title suggests, it is focused on small, quick interactions. Its timeline is quite short – just a matter of weeks. But within that, Lean packs just as much of a cinematic punch as any film of his I’ve ever seen.
This begins from the film’s very first shot – a beautiful composition of the shadowy smoke emanating from a train at a railway station. Here, we meet our main character – Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson). She is sitting at a nearby café with a man we later find out to be Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). I was so struck by this opening scene for the way it toys with us as the audience. We assume that the film’s title is referring to these two, but we don’t know much about either of them yet. This opening scene doesn’t give us much information about them, either. In fact, even if we assume that theirs is the “brief encounter” right from the start, we have tossed that notion aside by the time the reveal actually does occur. This confusion is handled quite well at the outset. Confusion for confusion’s sake will pull an audience out of the experience. But this film give us just enough to move us to the next scene without giving too much away at the same time.
The “reveal” comes when Laura comes home to her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond). Here she begins her confession, which is relayed to us through repeated interior monologues. I probably enjoy such voiceover more than most, but here I think it is handled better than any film I’ve seen previously. The voiceover is not used solely for exposition, and it helps us understand Laura’s character even better. That is vitally important to the success of this film, because we must empathize with her despite her scandalous actions.
The scandal is that Laura has begun to fall in love with Alec. They met while she was out getting groceries at a nearby town, a routine she follows every Thursday. After their initial meeting, they begin to meet each Thursday in between Alec’s shifts at the hospital. Their chemistry is undeniable, but they are both married. We shouldn’t empathize with either of them. Yet, we certainly empathize with Laura, and possibly even Alec. How is that so?
Well, the film is written so well that we recognize the inner anguish that this dalliance is causing Laura. She is struggling with it. Since we are able to see that, we will give her second and third chances. We won’t give her a pass, but we also won’t be so quick to pass judgment on her.
I’m not sure the same can be said of Alec, as he seems to be less torn about the situation. It is he that makes the first overt move. Though Laura surely goes along with the situation, Alec seems to have less of a struggle within himself.
The film can be read as a profound consideration of the present as opposed to the future, especially when the two are compared within our own minds. There is a powerful scene where Laura dreams of her beautiful life with Alec, only to have the dream dissolve away into the pastures of her hometown of Ketchworth. “All those silly dreams disappeared,” Laura says. You can see how this film had a profound influence on a movie like La La Land, what with its juxtaposition of dreams and reality.
The film’s writing also has another subtle clue to us as the audience that we are to empathize with Laura – her monologues. Since they are structured as a confession, we automatically realize that she feels remorse. She often numbs that remorse with personal rationalizing, but we acknowledge her remorse nonetheless.
This film was released in 1945 and, as such, there are certainly some scenes that have not aged well. A scene where a man slaps a woman’s rear and everyone acts as if it is normal would certainly not be deemed appropriate today. While I think it is fair to acknowledge these instances, I don’t think it’s fair to expect a film from a different time period to completely jive with our current cultural morals and ideals.
I must say that I was extremely pleased with the way in which this film chose to end. We’ve seen Alec be incredibly self-centered in his dealings with Laura. Though it is clear that he is infatuated with her, I was never quite sure that he actually loved her. Fred, on the other hand, when confronted with his wife’s actions, is still considering her feelings and well-being. That is a picture of love, and it is a beautiful note on which to end the film.
Lean’s incredible talent is surely on display here, and this film is just about perfect. I found myself echoing one of Laura’s statements as I thought more about this film.
“I want to remember every minute.”