Director: David Lean / Screenplay: Noël Coward / Editing: Jack Harris / DP: Robert Krasker
Cast: Celia Johnson / Trevor Howard / Stanley Holloway / Joyce Carey / Cyril Raymond / Everley Gregg / Margaret Barton
This is the Age of the Train…
In many respects, David Lean’s career was later echoed, by that of Stanley Kubrick’s. After all, both men came through the School of Hard Knocks, producing some cracking films early in their careers. These in-turn, cemented long-lasting reputations unsullied by the flabby epics they were later to be reviled for. Kubrick’s template was forged with Paths of Glory and its revisionist, anti-war sentiment. For Lean, it was Brief Encounter: for perhaps similar reasons that we’ll explore later.
By the time Lean came to Noël Coward’s playlet ‘Still Life’, they’d already made a trio of pictures together. Their partnership began in 1942, when Lean was promoted from the editing room, to direct action sequences for Coward’s own wartime drama In Which We Serve. This experience proved so liberating for Lean, that he swiftly advanced to fully direct two more Coward scripts. With the war nearing its end, at least in Europe, Lean could use this fourth – and final – collaboration, to map out his vision as a fully-formed Director.
Resources were scarce, but Coward’s original piece required little more than a single set (a station tea-room), so despite its clever expansion into a three-act film script, it still made modest demands of the Denham Studio. At the time, Nazi Germany was still pressing its ‘V2’ rocket attacks against London, so for the night-shoot, it was deemed prudent to leave town for a while. The atmospheric Lancastrian station of Carnforth, offered a bolt-hole for the night-shoot with an added advantage: being so distant from London, meant the production could light the locale, unfettered by ongoing blackout restrictions in the Capital.
Coward’s script, was simple in plan: strangers meet, strike-up an unconsummated love affair over a few days, then part; both scarred by the thought of what might have been. Yet, in its nuanced detailing, it was anything but simple and would require two leads capable of imbuing real pathos into their interpretations. Film history will show that the right calls were made here.
It begins with a little misdirection from Lean, who opens on the station tea-room and focuses on Stanley Holloway’s porter, Mr. Godby and his evident flirtation with Joyce Carey’s primped tea-room manager, Mrs. Bagot. Coward’s script takes subtle pains in revealing that both characters are now single and free to conduct their affair; this, so we don’t draw ill comparisons elsewhere. It’s telling us more: that, in any café, at any time, we never really know the stories of the patrons; those forgettable, bland & interchangeable faces who come and go.
Take the young couple over there, in that far corner, for example. They look sad, for some reason. Worse still, now that a third character – a lady – has joined them. Now, Lean shifts our POV, to the point we’re eavesdropping. The newcomer, evidently a gossipy friend of the lady, is flagging after a day’s shopping and she asks the man to fetch her some tea. This couple looks so brittle – so taut – when seen together, that it seems one or both could snap at any moment…
The man returns with her tea and is introduced as Dr. Alec Harvey by his companion. He’s a G.P., who’ll soon be leaving his practice for a new job in Africa and neither he, nor his companion, seem thrilled by the prospect. His train’s then called: he must go. He shakes the newcomer’s hand, gently squeezes his companion’s shoulder and leaves without looking back.
If we hadn’t known already, we’re witness to the last moments shared by this couple yet, to the newcomer as much as everyone else in the place, there’s nothing to see. No fireworks or some grand, dramatic gesture. Just a squeeze of the shoulder and a short walk to the platform outside, without a backward glance.
Trevor Howard played Alec, in his first leading screen role. It was to be the part that came to define his later career, for bad or ill, but he’s fine here. Unlike that of his lover, we never get to see anything of Alec’s own family, so it’s down to Howard to convince us, that what he’s got back home is worth walking away from and, on-balance – I think he succeeds. Thanks to Coward’s writing, Howard is given the chance to explore what it is to be hidebound by social convention, whilst blown off-course by an emotional tornado and, somehow, hold it all in.
Yet I think it’s Celia Johnson s Laura Jesson who carries the picture and not just because she’s both narrator and the film’s focus. For a start, she’s blessed with a Director able to showcase her supremely expressive eyes to full-effect, but she also has a crystalline fragility about her. To convey such brittleness on-screen, is a rare gift indeed. Forget the middle-class trappings and the cut-glass RP and consider instead, Laura’s position & temperament. Do that and it’s easy to imagine what torment both she and Alec have invited upon each other.
The real tragedy for these would-be lovers, is just how scant their dalliance actually is. It begins innocently enough, with Alec winkling out some grit from Laura’s eye. Then a chance meeting on a street corner and, finally, when she offers him the vacant seat at her table in a packed café. On a whim, Alec accompanies her to the cinema that same afternoon and both enjoy their time together, to the point where they make a date to meet in a weeks time. So it goes, for a run of four or five consecutive Thursdays.
They each see something in the other, that they’ve been missing in their own lives even if – to that point – they weren’t aware of its absence. Take Laura’s relationship with husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). He’s an affable, professional stuffed-shirt who’s idea of a rollicking night’s entertainment is to sit down with The Times crossword while Laura sews, perhaps with the radio playing Rachmaninoff (Coward insisted on his 2nd Concerto being the picture’s musical focus) and, all the while, their two precious children (chips-off-the-old-block, both) are upstairs. This is Coward, writing what he believed to be the epitome of a cloying family. No wonder, that Laura is captivated by Alec’s boyish enthusiasm for messing about in boats, or talking so animatedly about his vocational passion for medicine, treating it with the same reverence ‘as might a writer for their craft’. Funny, that…
So they’re lost souls, both. Bound by golden chains of tradition, moral judgement and stigma that stifle any hope of breaking free. All they’re getting, are stolen kisses in shadowy recesses of the station, before they catch their different trains back to ‘real life’. At one point, Laura bolts from her carriage as it’s about to leave the platform and hurries back to a flat belonging to Stephen Lynn. A friend of Alec’s, Lynn’s already (and unwittingly) loaned his little 2-seat roadster for a day’s illicit fun and on this day, has announced he’ll be dining out. When told this earlier, Laura rebuffed Alec’s implied suggestion that they retire to the flat; it was suddenly all too real for her. But from the moment she hurriedly leaves the train and returns to the flat, it’s as if Fate (or rather, Coward) has decided to be cruel.
After all, her character has taken a Decisive Step. She has crossed the line separating Fantasy from Reality and is about to discover that, for mere mortals, there’s a price to be paid. So, mere seconds after Alec has gotten over the shock of seeing her, Lynn can be heard returning early and poor Laura has to beat a hasty, undignified retreat via the ‘tradesman’s staircase’… Her self-recriminatory sprint back to the station could happen no other way. It’s also raining.
Of course it’s raining.
These two are fêted then, never to be together. Instead, their lot is to live with the fantasy of what might have been, as opposed to What Will Be. The film that emerges, might almost be seen as the definitive cinematic statement, on the consequences of inter-relational restraint… And when, at the end, Laura is seen by Fred in a new light, Lean manages something of a minor miracle, in conveying Fred’s sudden awareness that something IMPORTANT, but intangible, has just transpired. That he doesn’t push Laura for details and is instead content to make it known that he’s grateful to her for simply being there? Well, I found that quietly moving.
It’s also a film dominated by steam trains. Their speed & power. Thuds, rattles and whistles. Their smoke & steam (was it not a piece of sooty grit in Laura’s eye, that started all this?). The unwavering timetable that dictates when these people can even see each other. The cosy nooks & subtle, glowing pools of light throughout the station. There’s a romantic mood here, that just couldn’t be recreated today.
The film’s a period piece in almost every aspect, then. But in exploring the possibilities of the medium, Lean’s a fast student. Look how he tilts the camera when framing Laura for her maddened, final rush onto the platform. Come to think of it, the entire, unsettling sequence. Or his use of her lengthy VO, to accelerate & contextualise narrative exposition. The mannered subtleties extracted from the minor players, as they realise in their own ways, what’s going on. His decision to fracture the film’s chronology and have it begin at the end, leaving the rest of the film to fill-in the blanks as to how these poor, benighted souls got to that tea-room; I wonder if it inspired Billy Wilder when he was planning Sunset Boulevard a few months later?
Which brings me back to my opening statement, about Brief Encounter being a war film. It appears a tenuous claim, yet consider the time in which it was made. Britain was still at war in early 1945, but the end was surely in-sight. The film-makers knew – or at least had a sense – that when it was all over, the World they knew, would be irrevocably changed. I think they also realised that certain values then held dear to the British, would come under threat, as the UK faced up to its own responsibilities in a post-war World, i.e. loss of Empire, likelihood of economic deprivation as the war economy transitioned to peace.
What the country would need, perhaps above all else, was a sense of continuity. A social cohesion, that would maintain the ‘Blitz spirit’ in this new reality and stop the country splintering as it wrestled with the new. In the event, it’d get a transformative Labour Government and a ‘New Deal’ for the working class, but the yearning for decency propounded by the film, spoke to many who’ve had to make equally hard choices through the war. Lean’s film is telling them that it’s on their side. It recognises their joys and miseries. Alec & Laura might be almost laughable cut-outs when seen in some lights, but their responses to life’s struggles are as valid – as real – today.
Yes, Brief Encounter is a ripe target for parody and that target will only widen as the decades pass, but at its heart, lays a seminal work by a British Director, blessed with a perfect cast and a sense of how to extract the best from a deceptively simple idea, written by a master at the top of his game.
You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.