“Brief Encounter” (1945) is a fascinating movie for what it shows and what it does not show, what is says, and what it does not say. It is unselfconsciously intimate, yet in the most cordial manner.
While this blog is mainly concerned with Hollywood films, taking a look at this British film gives a look at the English culture without the gingerbread of a typical Hollywood view of English culture.
The story, originally from a Noel Coward play, is of a love affair between a man and a woman who meet in a railway station tearoom. Both are married to other people, and though their romance is chaste, they nevertheless feel immense guilt when they acknowledge their attraction for each other, and a painful sense of hopelessness over their love. Divorce is not an option for either because each remains loyal to his/her spouse and children. Continuing as they are in an emotional limbo as bleak as the train station is also unthinkable.
The trains that roar past them alternately assume the inevitability of their fate, or their conscience. They have to catch their separate trains. They dare not miss the train.
The film begins at the ending, as they are about to part forever. The rest of the film is told in flashback with a voice over narration by Celia Johnson, who plays the female lead. She speaks as if reciting the story to her kindly but dull husband, of whom she acknowledges to herself, “You’re the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand. If only it was somebody else’s story and not mine. As it is, you’re the only one in the world I can never tell…even if I waited until we were old, old people and told you then, you’d be bound to look back over the years and be hurt.”
Her soliloquy explains the conflict of the story, that although the character played by Celia Johnson and her lover, played by Trevor Howard, never get more physical in their illicit relationship than kissing, they battle, along with the great temptation to take their romance further, an enormous guilt simply for enjoying each other’s company. Infidelity, it seems, is a matter of the heart and mind for them.
It is a film where very small details are made large, as told through the psyche of Miss Johnson’s narration, they way we enlarge insignificant moments in our minds when we are very emotional. The annoying chatter of other people when we want to be alone with our thoughts. The light that plays from streetlamps, the rain, his hand briefly on her shoulder when he says goodbye. Director David Lean turns these into monumental moments.
The score, with its strains of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto” is at turns gossamer, and at other moments leaden with sadness.
As for the real English culture versus the Hollywood ersatz version of that era, we see no huge, airy rooms with roaring fires in enormous stone fireplaces, no quaint and not-too-bright servants, and no heroic stiff upper lips. The rooms are small, dark, with feeble heat and only the suggestion of a cook downstairs. There is a sense of clutter, not of heritage or noblesse oblige. However, Miss Johnson does wander in her stream-of-consciousness narration to give us a self-portrait of the English with the remark, “I believe we should all behave quite differently in a warm, sunny climate all the time. We shouldn’t be so withdrawn and shy and difficult.”
It’s an interesting remark. One shouldn’t take old movies, from whatever culture, as gospel to define that culture. Most Americans at one time or another have laughed, or blanched, at the thought of our films being used as an example of who we are. To do the same to the British with this lovely film would be unfair. Still, we see that while there are the same Hollywood-style comic cockney underclasses represented by the tearoom staff and the railroad official played wonderfully by Stanley Holloway, nevertheless there is no forelock pulling. They do not behave subserviently to the middle class, educated and well-spoken Johnson and Howard. If anything, they are inclined to bully when they are inconvenienced.
However, they show quite a contrasting dignity. Though Holloway’s jokester character does all he can to flirt with the standoffish tearoom lady, even enrages her by slapping her on the bum, he redeems himself in her eyes by coming to her rescue. Two cheeky soldiers speak to rudely to her, and Mr. Holloway, with immense sternness and dignity, sends them packing. At a table nearby, a defeated Johnson and Howard wallow in the misery of their own weaker moral compasses. Things are not black and white with them.
Interestingly, though this film was made in 1945, these two naughty soldiers are the only evidence we have of it’s being wartime. There are no other uniforms, no posters or signs, no discussion of current events. The severe wartime privation of the English, which lasted for some years after the war, is not seen here. It’s as if the very train station is an island away from the real world and leaves the lovers, and us, quite insolated.
Interesting, too, how the culture of the United States, its film culture that is, makes a brief appearance in the film, when the lovers go to the movies and laugh over a Donald Duck cartoon. When he is sent away, one of the soldiers hollers derisively at the tearoom lady, “…if them sandwiches were made this morning, you’re Shirley Temple!” Apparently, like it or not, to the rest of the world we really are the personification our films.
The most bleak moment of the film comes when, after an outing the in country, Howard must return the keys of the borrowed car to a friend. He goes to the friend’s flat, while Miss Johnson, in an agony of indecision, decides at last to join him there to have a little more time together before she heads home. The friend comes home early and she ducks out the back, humiliated at how it must look. The friend sees the scarf she left behind, and Mr. Howard, despite the innocence of the situation, is made to feel the full brunt of the appearance of sordidness in his friend’s arch assumptions.
Miss Johnson, in the meantime, runs in a panic through the rain and wanders through unfamiliar streets at night, as if her guilt and shame are chasing her. There are some great visuals of her rain-matted hair, of the condensation of their breath as they speak, and of the camera tilting at a frightening angle when, at the climax of her emotional crisis, she nearly rushes into an oncoming train to kill herself.
She does not kill herself, and instead offers the amazed if blunt confession that is was not due to thoughts of her husband or children that made her stop. Her obsession has made her forget them, made her lie, has made her hide and deceive, and she is appalled at herself and at the ease with which she does these things. We see the power of her obsession, and how the shock of that acknowledged obsession parts the lovers as much as does their guilt.
When she does return home, her husband watches her carefully over his crossword puzzle, sees that her mind has been miles away, in some sort of private torment. Rather than ask questions, he merely kneels before her chair when she rouses herself and remarks, “Thank you for coming back to me.”
It’s a great closing line, and makes us wonder was it merely a rhetorical question? How much did he know? Just how understanding is he?