Directed by: David Lean » Written by: Noël Coward, 1945 » Region/Time: U.K., black & white, 86 minutes.
Starring: Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson » Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey » Stanley Holloway as Albert Godby » Joyce Carey as Myrtle Bagot » Cyril Raymond as Fred Jesson » Everley Gregg as Dolly Messiter » Marjorie Mars as Mary Norton » Margaret Barton as Beryl Walters.
“This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really – neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore—when I can look back and say, quite peacefully and cheerfully, how silly I was.” – Laura Jesson
As Shakespeare once said, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Wait, maybe that was Tom Petty. Either way, the whole of Brief Encounter is one long moral dilemma—a simple case of “will they” or “won’t they”—during which the viewer is constantly waiting to see if or when the characters will make one particular, fateful decision. In the film, set outside of London at the tail end of World War Two, Laura Jesson and Dr. Alec Harvey meet, quite by accident, at a train station when she gets a piece of grit in her eye and he gallantly removes it. Both are happily married with children. Over successive meetings every Thursday, however, a spark of attraction develops between them. Soon they are madly in love and risking their established lives in order to share moments together. Cleverly, the movie makes it difficult to pinpoint that one tragic decision that Laura or Dr. Harvey make—early moments are innocent, with undercurrents of attraction, but by the second half of the film, it is already too late for them.
The film does not begin with their first meeting, however, but with their last moments together, having a cup of tea at the train station. They are interrupted by the gossiping Dolly, who sits with them and never shuts up. Alec has to catch his train and leaves the table. Dolly sits with Laura on the train and she begins to narrate the film. Brief Encounter is her story, a story of “violent things happening to ordinary people.” She returns home to her husband and children and the rest of the film is told as though it were a confession to her husband, Fred.
After their initial encounter, Alec and Laura meet outside of a store the following Thursday. The “Thursday next”, he sits at her table at a crowded restaurant and they share a meal and laugh together, eventually deciding to go to a movie together. At the end of the enjoyable, but innocent day, as they wait for their trains, they sit and have a conversation at the tea room at the station. It is here that Laura finds herself become attracted to Dr. Harvey, and he asks her to meet again at the same time next week. Needless to say, after much prevarication on her part, gnawed at by guilt, when the next week actually arrives, he doesn’t show up. As she leaves on her train, both relieved and disappointed, he runs up, apologizes and asks to meet her the next week. This continues until they find themselves in love, and professing it to each other, even though, as Laura says, “we’re neither of us free to love each other.”
From this point on, their actual moments together are deeply unhappy as both are overwhelmed by guilt and the feeling that their relationship is doomed to be brief. On their penultimate day together, the outside world begins to intrude on them: they are spotted by a couple of Laura’s friends at lunch. Alec has borrowed his friend’s flat, and ends the day by going back there and asking Laura to come. She initially refuses, but then bolts from her train at the last second. There are together at the flat mere moments before Dr. Harvey’s friend arrives and she must flee out the backdoor. How far was she willing to go? It is only certain that neither of them were thinking of their spouses and children at the time. At the train station, they both agree they must only see each other one last time, for the good of their marriages.
By this point, we have almost forgotten the opening scene, and so, as they are saying goodbye to each other for forever on the last day, it is a heartbreaking moment when Dolly arrives and begins to talk nonsense, preventing Laura and Dr. Harvey from saying what they desperately wish to say. Notice how this scene is shot differently the second time. Shots are focussed solely on Dr. Harvey and Laura, sometimes blacking out even Dr. Harvey, so we can see the despair on the Laura’s face. It is here that the quote at the top of this page becomes resonant. We have all felt those moments in our lives when it seems that all is lost, and that nothing else matters at all. How easy would it be to give in? To jump in front of the Express Train to London? What if it happened to conveniently pass by at that moment? After Dr. Harvey has left, the express train does pass by and she runs out to throw herself in front of it. She professes that it wasn’t thoughts of her husband or children that stop her, but the knowledge that “this misery can’t last.” Words of advice to live by.
The screenplay was adapted and based on Noël Coward’s 1935 short one-act stage play, Still Life. Originally an editor, working on such prestige pictures as Pygmalion (1938) and 49th Parallel (1941), David Lean began his directing career by adapting plays of Noël Coward’s, including Blithe Spirit (1945). Brief Encounter was their fourth collaboration. After its the success, Lean went on to direct two excellent and massively successful Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) (not the musical). In the mid-fifties, he embraced Technicolor and spectacle and directed a much different type of picture, of which we’ll hear more at a later date.
While this movie dwells on two potential adulterers in a battle between their desires and their morals, there is another film that addresses the effects of an affair on the two remaining spouses. That film won’t be showing up here for a while yet, though. In Brief Encounter, her husband seems oblivious to the whole affair, until the very last lines, as she comes out of the fog of her remembrances. “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.”
Up Next in the Film Canon: Why setting up elaborate lies to impress your out-of-town girlfriend is generally a bad idea!