Friday, December 07, 2018

Brief Encounter (1945)

UK, 86 minutes
Director: David Lean
Writers: Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame
Photography: Robert Krasker
Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Editor: Jack Harris
Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Cyril Raymond, Joyce Carey, Stanley Holloway, Everley Gregg

Producer, cowriter, and head mastermind Noel Coward made a deliberate choice to set Brief Encounter in prewar times, even with blackouts, screaming V-2 rockets, and World War II raging along during production. He wanted the story to be more one about the universal human condition and less one obscured by fog-of-war urgencies (and/or excuses). Yet inevitably, even with its narrow focus on a love affair between two people married but not to each other, Brief Encounter bears the plucky stamp of the "keep calm and carry on" ethos, a kind of way of life that is equal parts internal fortitude and cheery manner and all British. Ultimately that makes this movie something of a strange beast, a chaste meditation on illicit sexual attraction never consummated. Somehow it came together to create one of the greatest movie romances ever made.

In many ways, Brief Encounter is another one of those movies like The Wizard of Oz or Casablanca that amounts to a uniquely successful collaboration. Coward basically wrote every damn witty graceful word, cabling in some of the revisions from a war front where he was entertaining troops, and he is the one who had the good sense to insist for the score on pounding relentlessly Sergei Rachmaninoff's swooning Piano Concerto No. 2. But director David Lean quietly structured this picture in any number of clever and even brilliant ways, packing it full of careful symmetries, to make it what it is, and Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson is genuinely the star—her face or her voice in narration populate practically every frame. For whatever reason, Wikipedia does not classify Brief Encounter as a "woman's picture," though it is that rarest picture for its times—a woman's story, not only told from her point of view, but literally by her. In fact, Johnson is so singular that she takes some getting used to—working on me like a kind of Sandra Bernhard figure strained through the reserved Laura Bush. I did not understand what the big deal was about this movie until I happened to look at it a second time. Ever since, it only gets better.

One of its great features is an almost symphonic balance, literally starting and ending on the same scene. The distance from the first to the last opens the whole thing up as an epic journey. All the details that were only curiously puzzling the first time are rounded into their full meanings in the second. But the film is short, under 90 minutes, and the time it covers only a few weeks. It's brief in every way, yet it stays with you. The main set is a theatrical device, a railway waiting room with a snack stand. Here is where Laura and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) meet by happenstance on a Thursday, Laura's day for shopping in town. They bump into one another again, hit it off, and then, with two spouses and four children between them, begin to think it must be love. Before you know it, all talk is about how impossible it is, alternating with lines like, "It's too late now to be as sensible as all that."

The tale is further tightened by essentially taking place as a reverie Laura has in the evening on the day she has seen Alec for the last time. All her narration is silently addressed to her husband Fred (played by a commendably quiet Cyril Raymond), who is prone to heaving an avuncular, "All right, have it your own way." He is the only person in the world Laura feels she can tell the whole story to and the only person in the world she knows she can't. It's a wonderful tension, swelling and rising with her memories of the affair, and then look out, here comes that Rachmaninoff pounding on the piano again. There's an extraordinary amount of pathos emerging out of these perfectly bourgeois lives. Convention is the air they breathe. And here they are behaving so unconventionally. But this is also the touch point where we identify perhaps most with them—and with Fred too, for that matter, whom Laura never stops loving or holding in regard.

It's easy to say it's the era that's responsible for the picture's shrewdest move—which is that, though they kiss and come reasonably close to it, Laura and Alec never have sex. But the sure hand Lean shows here for domestic tension is not new for him. This Happy Breed from the year before, for example, another collaboration between Coward, Lean, and Johnson, is an episodic domestic drama that covers about 20 years of a family's history. It's 100% bourgeois convention but a wonderful piece of social realism, with Johnson playing the den mother to an extended family as effectively as she does the guilty straying eye in Brief Encounter. In 1949, with The Passionate Friends, Lean worked with Eric Ambler to adapt an H.G. Wells novel. It's another domestic drama but more unconventional, as a woman (Ann Todd) is torn between a safe and staid marriage with an older man (Claude Rains) and a more tempestuous obsessive romance with a younger man (Trevor Howard). All three of these movies by Lean are best when they probe at the weak points and the strong points of long-term relationships.

But Brief Encounter is the one that became a classic, which is probably fair enough given that it has the fewest flaws to distract from its strengths (though I have to say This Happy Breed is excellent too at what it does). At the end of Brief Encounter, Laura and Fred are reunited, and then, in a surprising switch-up, with the Rachmaninoff pounding away yet, Fred gets the last word and turns out not to be the insensitive oblivious fool we thought he might be, but the loving man Laura always knew. It's another great film with a great ending.

Top 10 of 1945
1. Brief Encounter
2. Leave Her to Heaven
3. Detour
4. Scarlet Street
5. Mildred Pierce
6. The Body Snatcher
7. And Then There Were None
8. My Name Is Julia Ross
9. The Corn Is Green
10. Objective, Burma!

Other write-ups: Children of Paradise

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