“Brief Encounter” has always been one of my very favorite movies. I have probably seen it four times, and I also saw it as a play on Broadway a few years ago. Its appeal may be limited to my generation who grew up in the 40’s and 50’s when repression was the standard operating procedure where love and romance were concerned.
Trevor Howard - Wikimedia
Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) was a suburban housewife in England in 1938 before the threat of war changed people’s attitudes towards risk-taking when the future was so unpredictable for so many. Housewives at that time, even in our own country, often had a day out to go shopping, have lunch and see a movie while their husbands were at work and the children were safe at school. Laura Jesson followed this routine religiously.
Plaque - Dame Celia Johnson Wikimedia
A Kind Act
Thus, it happened that she visited the same lunch room at the railway station every Thursday when she took the train into the city. On one of those days, soot from the train got in her eye and she asked the lunch room waitress for a glass of water to rinse her eye in an attempt to remove the soot. A kindly man stepped up, mentioned that he was a doctor, and proceeded to remove the fragment from her eye with the corner of his handkerchief. She thanked him graciously and they each went their own way.
On her next Thursday outing, they met again in the lunch room, while waiting for their respective trains. The lunch room was crowded and the man asked Laura if he might share her table. He introduced himself as Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), and they exchanged the pleasantries of the day. Laura gave little thought to him until they ran into each other again as she was exiting from a book store near his hospital.
Stanley Holloway Wikimedia
The Couple Attend the “Pictures”
It seemed normal and natural that every Thursday involved a get-together. Alec knew that Laura attended the “pictures” and invited himself along. They had a free and easy friendship and laughed a lot at the film which was entitled “Flames of Passion.” Laura even mentioned to her husband Fred that she had met a doctor at the train station and they went to the “pictures” together. Fred was busy doing his crossword puzzle and was unconcerned.
Acknowledgment of Love
Evidently, Alec’s time was his own because the next week he hired a car to take the two of them on a jaunt to the countryside, where they lingered on a stone bridge overlooking the water. They decided to take out a row boat, and Alec managed to get wet up to his knees in the process. It was during the boat ride when Alec confessed his deep love for Laura, and she acknowledged that it was reciprocal. They realized, of course, that there were countless obstacles to their happiness with each other, but did not want to end their friendship. Throughout the film, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto is played to lend a somber effect to the happenings.
The Train Station Lunch Room
In the lunch room, a sub-plot occurs where an official (Stanley Holloway) stops in frequently to chat with the cashier, to tease her and to flirt with her. Neither they, nor the patrons, appear to pay any attention to the growing relationship that is occurring right under their eyes.
The Carnsfort Station Clock - Wikimedia
When she was late arriving home on one Thursday, she lied to her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond) that she had run into her friend, Mary Norton (Marjorie Mars), which had held her up considerably. In secret, she called Mary to ask her to back her up on her story if the occasion ever came up. Laura knew, at that point, that what she was doing was wrong. On another occasion, Mary and a companion were patronizing the same restaurant that Laura and Alec chose to celebrate their love with a bottle of champagne. Mary spoke to them on leaving, which complicated their situation even more.
Alec’s colleague Stephen had a flat in the city and had given Alec a key if he should ever need to stay overnight there. Alec invited Laura to come to the flat, and both knew what the possible outcome of the arrangement would be if they had privacy to be together. Shortly after they arrived, Stephen came home earlier than expected, and Laura had to scramble to go out the back door lest she be seen. She had left her scarf behind and Stephen mentioned that he had heard the commotion when Laura was leaving. He told Alec that he was disappointed, and asked him to return his key. It was such an embarrassment to Laura that she wanted to end the affair right there.
Unlike today’s racier films, there were no bedroom scenes in “Brief Encounter.” The viewer, however, shares the tension that builds up between the lovers, which adds to the appeal of the story.
Alec is Offered a Job in South Africa
At their next meeting, Alec told Laura that he had an offer of a job in South Africa at a hospital where his brother worked. He was debating about whether to uproot his family to take the job, and had not yet made a decision. He knew that their affair had to have an ending, and realized that it might be the best course to take. He told Laura that if she wanted him to stay, he would. Laura said that he should go.
Laura’s Talkative Friend
At their last meeting in the train station lunch room, they knew that they had only a few minutes to say goodbye to each other. An acquaintance of Mary, Dolly Messiter, interrupted their conversation and sat down with them. She talked endlessly about nothing, not realizing the agony that was being experienced by Alec and Laura. Alec had to leave to catch his train without having said a proper goodbye to Laura.
Noel Coward - Wikimedia
Popularity of the Film
I don’t know if there are many people who have experienced this same kind of illicit affair, but it was so easy to sympathize with the couple, without regard for their legal mates waiting at home for them. The film captured the imagination of the public to such an extent that it has been labeled “the best romantic film of all time.” I recently watched another film in which the fictional protagonist declared that “Brief Encounter” was her favorite film.
“Brief Encounter” is taken from a play by Noel Coward entitled “Still Life,” which was produced in 1936. The story is one of three shows that were performed under the title “Tonight at 8:30.”
Treat yourself to this superb film. It can be viewed online at no charge.
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