#31. Brief Encounter (1945)
Directed by: David Lean
Written by: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (based on Still Life by Noel Coward)
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond
I had the pleasure of seeing David Lean’s Brief Encounter in a theatre over the summer, and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite theatrical experiences. While the film is not as epic as Lean’s other films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, or Doctor Zhivago, the experience of seeing it on a large screen with great sound and with undivided attention made me appreciate Brief Encounter more than ever before. Lean’s film tells the story of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), an unhappy middle-class housewife in late 1930’s Britain. After a day in the city, Laura meets a doctor named Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) in a train station tea house. The two instantly hit it off, and eventually arrange to meet again. What begins as an innocent friendship between two adults soon leads to romantic feelings and thoughts from both parties, with Laura contemplating pursuing an affair with Alec. What follows is a complex look at romance, the excitement of a new relationship, and the pitfalls of adultery. Brief Encounter is an incredibly well-structure film, clocking in at just 86 minutes but featuring the emotional content of a full-blown two-plus hour drama. The script, based on a play by famous playwright Noel Coward, wastes little time in setting the stage and introducing the characters of Laura and Alec. Both main characters are treated fairly, as their situation is one that nearly anybody involved in a long-term romance could wind up in. Both are extremely likeable and charming characters, which is helped by the chemistry between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. The romantic tension is obvious from the second time the characters meet, and the emotional minefield they must traverse is taxing and complicated. Celia Johnson’s Laura is extremely conflicted from the get-go, but is clearly bored of her now monotonous homelife, and Trevor Howard’s Dr. Alec Harvey is intelligent, funny, and extremely charming. The performances from both actors are terrific, and really help to sell the drama found in Brief Encounter. David Lean’s direction follows Laura and Alec as they converse in a tea shop, in a movie theatre, and as they walk and talk with each other through the streets – potentially inspiring filmmaker Richard Linklater and his Before Trilogy. The style found in Brief Encounter is understated and subtle, putting emphasis on building a suspenseful atmosphere, begging viewers to ask themselves what they would do in their situation, and wanting to know what each character will decide to do. Brief Encounter is a brilliantly paced film featuring tight, focused writing, terrific performances, and impressive understated direction – it’s a triumph, and one of the most complex love stories ever written.