Brief Encounter (1945)

Directed by David Lean

Returning home from a shopping trip to a nearby town, bored suburban housewife Laura Jesson is thrown by happenstance into an acquaintance with virtuous doctor Alec Harvey. Their casual friendship soon develops during their weekly visits into something more emotionally fulfilling than either expected, and they must wrestle with the potential havoc their deepening relationship would have on their lives and the lives of those they love.

"No more laughter... prepare for tears."

This second viewing on New Year's Eve totally ran me over like the last train to Ketchworth…


Some more thoughts:

Brief Encounter makes it clear that it is Laura (and not Alec) that first escalates the relationship from more than a coincidental acquaintance from the encounters at the two cafés.

• When Laura learns that her son has been in an accident whilst she was at the cinema with a man who wasn't her husband (which incidentally, from the Gods point of view, obviously wasn't an accident…), Laura rushes to her son's side with genuine sincerity.

• What drives this romance is Alec himself, and it is crucially not fueled by either of them believing it to be 'forbidden'.

• Like the assumed viewer of the film, the friend of Alec who discovers a woman has been in his flat with Alec clearly doesn't approve of the affair in principle (although he is unnecessarily cruel in scolding Alec). But nor does he finger Alec as a serial cheater either. Clearly, the viewer must believe that this new relationship is not in Alec's nature or history. (Curiously, Laura's flashback cannot have direct knowledge of this scene: are we learning of it via what Alec relays to her later?)

• Despite the obvious allusion to Anna's fate at the end of Anna Karenina (Tolstoy's narrative is famously bookended by two different deaths at a train station), Laura's husband is clearly not a blandly cruel Alexei Karenin.

Taken together, all these points make it clear that the film is taking great pains to say that Laura is no 'homewrecker' out for a bit of fun. If nothing else, it wouldn't have been possible to produce this hypothetical alternative, but it would also be completely out of step with Laura's position in society: note how the policeman doesn't really believe she is a lady of the night because of her appearance and demeanour; he's genuinely curious about her welfare. Regardless, this does nicely mirror Tolstoy's own moral philosophy in Anna Karenina, whereby "unselfish seeking of goodness obtains a state of grace, whereas a predatory self-assertion results in damnation".

Literature and philosophy aside, the way Celia Johnson looks up at Trevor Howard's Alec talking about fibrosis of the lungs and says, "You suddenly look very young" is literally haunting, in the sense that I can't stop thinking about it.

Incidentally, "The Royal", where they have champagne before Alec leaves for South Africa, is, alas, merely a set. But you can have some tea at Carnforth Station in Lancashire which stood in for the suburbs of bombed out London. It's a three or four-hour train from Kings Cross depending on your luck with the connections...