Brief Encounter Review
Top 100 lists of movies. Who is to say that these are the best movies? Really, no matter how many thousand movies are in the full selection, or how many people you get to vote for the short list, and however you go about ranking the remaining 100, this is surely still all about the personal tastes of the relative few, projected as being the assumed ‘best movies’ for acceptance by the many? If scant few of these ‘official’ top films are actually amidst your own personal ‘top 100’ then where is the validity in even having such a list? What is the point? Well I happen to think that it is possible, as an individual, and as a movie critic, to distinguish between a movie that I personally love, and one which I regard a ‘great movie’. There are movies which I may personally dislike, and never want to particularly watch again, but which I can still understand as being both great, and important pieces of work (Schindler’s List, Requiem for a Dream). Of course there are always movies that you just can’t justify being on any ‘best’ lists (Titanic, Shakespeare in Love and, for me, Fargo) but, still, many of the entries you can attempt to ‘objectively’ understand as being ‘top’ entries. I can see why Citizen Kane is a better – and more important – movie than something like, for example, Speed or Kill Bill, or even The Wrestler, even if I myself would much prefer to watch any of the latter movies than sit through Kane again.
As part of this site’s quest to complete reviews on all of the BFI and AFI top 100 titles, I had the opportunity to watch a movie I might never have otherwise chosen to see: Brief Encounter. The film is a 1945 black and white romantic drama, about two fairly regular married individuals who embark upon an illicit, though highly restrained, affair. But it is really far more than that. It is actually a very important milestone in British socio-political history.
The history of the production is interesting in and of itself. Originally it was written as a short, one-act play – entitled ‘Still Life’ – by acclaimed playwright Noel ‘’ Coward, himself a closet homosexual. Whilst the story was about a man and woman, it is not a far stretch to assume that Coward was alluding to his own illicit experiences – the drama itself portraying the dangers of conducting such an affair, and how socially and politically incorrect it was (homosexuality was illegal at the time). Written in 1936, in the decade after women finally got the right to vote, it appealed to the masses in its representation of what many people were fantasising about.
It was not until 1945 that the material would be picked up as a part of a series of Coward plays that Director David ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ Lean was intent on adapting for the screen. Now things were vastly different in 1945. The war had just ended, and things were fairly complicated back home. Whilst the men were away, women had been given much more responsibility – they had tasted a little of the independence that they deserved (and wouldn’t fully get until several decades later) and yet the men were now returning home. Would everything go back to the status quo of before? Men probably hoped so, but women were now thinking a little bit more for themselves, so things might not be that simple.
Cinema in those days was different as well, one of the few accessible forms of media, and much more prevalently used for (and effective as) a form of communicating ideas to the masses. There is an argument to say that this is not the correct use for movies – that it could be seen as propaganda – but whichever way you looked at it, it was a very effective way of informing the public. And in 1945, it was necessary – once again – to reassure the masses that things were going to go back to normal after the War.
Enter Brief Encounter. Adapted from its original play, it obviously had to be tweaked a great deal, as the play was so damn short. Extracting from the five scenes set at a quaint little train station, we now had a cleverly constructed narrative told from the perspective of a ‘happily’ married woman, essentially in flashback form, regaling her experiences – by means of narration – over the past few weeks. Instead of marking an overt allegory for an illicit homosexual relationship, the play was transformed into a poster campaign for the confused wife, essentially showing free thinking, independent women, whose husbands had returned from the War expecting their dinner to be cooked and on the table, that it was ok to have these kinds of thoughts. It was ok to have feelings for men other than your husband, to even get swept away by it all, so long as – at the end of the day – they thought things through and stayed true to their principles and ‘proper’ upbringing.
All of a sudden we had a movie which both reassured War veterans and could be related to by War wives, a positive message to the public that the War had not ruined the status quo, and that women having a mind of their own did not necessarily mean that they would still not choose to be true and loyal to the men they had committed themselves to.
The story itself was a simple tale, as briefly surmised above, seeing Celia Johnson’s average, happily married housewife, Laura, take a shine to Trevor Howard’s forthright, charming married doctor, Alec. Embarking on a series of ill-advised meetings: for coffee, to see a movie – all ostensibly innocent events, but nevertheless clearly not falling into the category of ‘just friends’. These two initially kid themselves (or at least Laura does) about their friendship, but it soon becomes clear that they are both hanging on each other’s words, desperate to see each other again, pining for it and hashing out the angst of the betrayal (mental, at least) that they are committing against their respective partners.
Things take an interesting twist when we find that, despite Alec making it clear that he is not in this just to be friends, Laura does not run a mile (back into the arms of her blissfully unaware husband) but instead lets things proceed, clearly allowing the ‘relationship’ to evolve into something that is – for all intents and purposes – dating. These two are madly enamoured with one another (in a classic, old-fashioned kind of way: you know, where they declare their love for one another before even kissing), and yet constrained by their situation.
Pitching the lead characters as average, everyday, middle-class individuals also deglamorised the ludicrous Hollywood stereotypes, appealing to the masses and giving them a very real depiction of elicit love, relating forth exactly the questions they would have been asking themselves in that situation. Beyond just the requirements of the sanctity of marriage, there was a necessity not to behave in an improper, vulgar fashion: this was inherent with middle-class values. Ironically, the original play was much more ambiguous in its conclusion on this philosophical subject matter, relating it as a clandestine affair but not passing too much judgment on the couple themselves. And, adding the writer, Coward’s, own sexuality into the equation, it was obvious that he was somewhat condoning the behaviour and proposing the affair as a better alternative to the stagnant doing-the-right-thing marriage.
Of course the movie, paradoxically, reverses these ideas and positively condemns the behaviour of the two ‘lovers’, but within the realms of still painting it realistically, somewhat subversively accessing the concerns and feelings of married men and women, in an attempt to reassure men into thinking that the traditional roles of a married couple would be re-established. Some would argue that all of this is a case of going against the writer’s original wishes, but since Coward was fully on-board with the production, he must have certainly – at least – accepted the changes made, and seen the importance of making them. And moreover, the effect upon the burgeoning, increasingly more accepted homosexual quota of the nation, was actually far more positive than one might assume from the film’s representation of the affair – seen as an allegorical representation of forbidden homosexual love, as informed by Coward’s own experiences.
As a piece of British history – and the history of British Cinema – Brief Encounter is of undeniable importance. But as a movie – as well as its brave anti-Hollywood sentiments – it is actually quite an adept piece of filmmaking. Considering it was made 65 years ago(!!) it was amazing to see this kind of cinematography, camera angle usage and perfect shadow-play in action. The London settings – most notably the train station – simply come alive under the Director’s talented hand. And the use of flashbacks and story narration enhances the film no end, allowing the very subject-matter to be contemporaneously commented upon, and adding a whole new layer to the proceedings. It was a masterful, relatively early effort from the man who would later go on to direct other, increasingly epic, top 100 entries: Great Expectations, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Although Brief Encounter may not always be remembered in the same breath as the above, it still remains an important piece of filmmaking, and an interesting look at our own opulent history.