David Lean (1945)
It all looks like another country now, the odd, narrow-vowelled speech, the preposterous hats, but this story of two people who fall marvellously and disastrously in love still has tremendous emotional power. Scripted with panache by Noel Coward, and with much of it told in agonised voice-over by Laura (Celia Johnson) the story cunningly both begins and ends with their terrible last minutes together on the railway station, seen from different points of view. The expressionist-inspired cinematography, where black and white can turn in an instant from the grey of utter mundanity to the landscape of romantic despair, and the fabulous score – how can dark Russian romanticism be so perfect for a drab postwar England of tea urns, bath buns, and dowdy women on their way to change their library books? – make a small tragedy being played out in a suburban station unbearably poignant. It almost becomes Anna Karenina, but ends, really, more bleakly. Life must go on. No great causes to fight for, you know exactly what the rest of this woman’s life will be, her comfortable claustrophobic home, chattering neighbours, squabbly children, kind dull old husband. Though it’s easy for the subsequent Me Generations to make fun of these lovers who chose not to go for their desires, the moral choice here is not so much about respectability and ‘duty’, but about how far one is justified in destroying other people’s happiness for the sake of one’s own.
There’s a lot of humour too – the lovers’ tale is punctuated, punctured even, by the banal chat of the station staff, (Joyce Carey’sMyrtle is surely Dot Cotton’s mum!) recounting a far more basic view of life and love, a kind of Hardy-esque chorus. And there are classic sardonic Coward moments – Laura’s husband doing his Times crossword -‘ah yes, romance – that fits in nicely with Baluchistan and delirium’. But Coward makes his mark strongly too in the intense portrayal of undercover, impossible love, ‘that strange diversity of misery and joy’, that must have been so familiar to his circle.
After every (often very funny) parody the intervening years have thrown at it, Brief Encounter emerges truly tragic, witty, and glowingly beautiful.
First reviewed September 2007