Like many film buffs, I am often surprised when a film director wins the "Best Director" award at the Oscars or some other ceremony and yet the film itself is denied "Best Picture". Re-watching "Brief Encounter" recently helped me to understand how such a thing might be possible. There is no doubt that it is a superbly directed film and that David Lean's "Best Director" Oscar nomination was well-deserved. Nevertheless, I have never been convinced by the arguments of those who would claim the film as a great classic of the British cinema.
This was Lean's fourth film, and like his first three ("In Which We Serve", "This Happy Breed" and "Blithe Spirit") was based upon a work by Noël Coward, who adapted the screenplay from his one-act play "Still Life". It tells the story of the relationship (the "brief encounter" of the title) between Laura Jesson, a middle-class housewife, and Alec Harvey, a doctor. The two meet at a railway station while she is returning from a shopping excursion to a nearby town, and arrange to meet again. They quickly become friends and then fall in love. Although their relationship is never consummated (the censors were insistent on this point), they come to care deeply for one another and make plans for a life together. Both, however, are married with two children, and although divorce was legally possible in the Britain of the forties, it was very much frowned upon by social convention. The story is narrated by Laura in the first person, imagining that she is confessing her affair to her husband Fred.
Many people assume that the action takes place in Home Counties suburbia, and certainly the accents (either Received Pronunciation or Cockney) are suggestive of south-east England. Only one character, a policeman who appears briefly, has a northern accent. Other factors, however, do suggest a northern location, notably Alec's reference to coal mines in the vicinity, the initials LMS (London, Midland and Scottish Railway) on the railway carriages and the rugged scenery in the countryside scenes. Finally, the matter is settled when we see references to cities such as Leeds, Bradford and Lancaster on the destination boards on the station platform. (These scenes were actually shot at Carnforth station in Lancashire).
The whole of Coward's play is set in the station refreshment room. Although Lean does open the film up by introducing other settings, such as Laura's home or a cinema, many of the key scenes still take place at the station, and it is in these scenes that Lean shows his gifts as a director to their best advantage. The black-and-white photography of the steam trains is particularly striking and takes on a symbolic quality; constantly in motion, rapidly arriving and departing, they seem to stand for the rapidity of change in human affairs, and in particular the rapidity with which the romance of Laura and Alec develops and then come to an end. These scenes have become even more evocative ever since the steam locomotive ceased to be an everyday means of transport and became a potent symbol of nostalgia.
"Brief Encounter " may have been beautifully photographed, but I was less enthusiastic about either the writing or the acting, both of which are characterised by a deadening emotional reticence which does not sit well with either Lean's dramatic direction or the use on the soundtrack of that supremely romantic piece of music, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. This is supposed to be the story of an all-consuming, albeit unconsummated, passion, but one would not think so to judge from Coward's script. Coward's greatest gift as a writer was his mordant wit, which he could put to good use in his comedies, but his attempts to write serious drama could often seem artificial and mannered, the sort of drawing-room theatre which in the next decade was to be so angrily rejected by the Angry Young Men.
Nor would one think so from the well-mannered gentility with which Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard mouth their lines. For all their talk of love and desire, I was never convinced that either of them really felt the emotions they were talking about. Even during her lifetime Johnson was regarded as something of a national treasure by an older generation of film-lovers, but I always found her cut-glass accent grating, an early case of Irritating Vowel Syndrome. In this film she sounds more like an aristocrat than any Lancashire housewife (or even London housewife) I have ever heard.
We never see Mrs Harvey, so never learn why Alec was dissatisfied with his existing marriage, but in Laura's case we are supposed to infer that she finds Fred dull, although he is caring and affectionate. Unfortunately, Alec, although idealistic, does not come across as being any more exciting than Cyril Raymond's Fred. Trevor Howard never suggests that if Laura were to leave her husband for him she would be doing any more than exchanging one stolid bourgeois suburbanite for another. (It does not help that, although Howard was only 32 at the time, he looked considerably older). Howard was to give some great performances in films like "The Third Man", but this is not one of them.
One criticism made of the film is that it is "dated", by which is normally meant that attitudes towards sex have changed since the forties. It is certainly true that divorce does not carry the stigma that it did seventy years ago, but there is still a widely held view that adultery is immoral and many modern viewers will still sympathise with Laura and Alec's decision to put their families and their marriages before their love for one another. The problem is that neither Coward, Johnson nor Howard are able to persuade us that this decision really involved any great sacrifice. Lean does his best, but steam trains and Rachmaninoff can only take you so far. 7/10
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