Shockingly modern in sensibility, construction, and execution, Brief Encounter is very different from what one thinks of as a David Lean movie, whose historical epics have come to define posh, mid-century, cinematic excellence. Yet it’s this 1945 melodrama, based on a Noel Coward play, that might just be Lean’s best.
A heightened, atmospheric account of a short-lived affair between a housewife and doctor who meet at a train station and have a series of rushed rendezvous there, Brief Encounter is a clear predecessor for woozy romances like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and Todd Haynes’ Carol. The latter film not only borrows Brief Encounter’s framing device, centered on a cup of tea, but also the way it imbues a slight gesture—the squeeze of a shoulder—with exquisite anguish.
Celia Johnson plays Laura, the housewife, and the film is told from her point of view. We first hear her thoughts shortly after the opening scene, in which an acquaintance has interrupted an intense conversation she was having with Alec (Trevor Howard), the doctor, over tea at the station’s cafe. On the train home with the other woman (Everley Gregg), Laura looks at her and laments, to herself, that this babbling gossip is nowhere near the confidante she needs at this crucial moment.
From there the movie flashes back to the beginning of the affair. As the voiceover technique is continued—much of the film is an inner monologue/confession that Laura delivers to her husband (Cyril Raymond) as he blithely works on a crossword puzzle—Johnson is required to do quite a bit of nonverbal acting. She excels at the moments of self-reflection, allowing every emotion she’s experiencing—elation, shame, pride, guilt—to flitter, in conflict, across her face. Surely Diane Lane learned from Johnson’s work here for Unfaithful, another heir to Brief Encounter, especially given its own penchant for trains.
Lean and his creative team employ the railroad motif in increasingly varied ways. The opening shot, of a steam engine rushing into the station, alerts you to the heightened emotions about to ensue. Later, while Laura is flush with the excitement of the affair on her way back home, she looks out the dark window and her reflection gives way to fantasy visions of dancing and traveling with Alec. After the images fade, the camera pulls away and her reflection returns, her face dampened because “all the silly dreams disappeared” upon arriving at her stop.
Even when a train isn’t literally on the screen, the sound design employs whistles, station announcements, and screeching brakes to create an atmosphere of intensity and anxiety. Those whistles serve both as timekeepers and moral police, always interrupting Laura and Alec, cutting off their time together and screaming in objection to their romance. Indeed, their most rash instance of infidelity involves both of them impulsively deciding to miss their respective train.
The station setting also allows for one of the most elegant dissolves in movie history (Lean is working here with cinematographer Robert Krasker). Walking through the tunnel underneath the station platforms, Laura and Alec pause for a passionate kiss, then quickly separate when other passengers turn the corner. As they glide along the dark corridor, their image begins to fade, while in the bottom corner of the screen the figure of Laura, sitting in a chair across from her husband, slowly materializes. His words to her as her attention slowly shifts to him? “You were miles away.”
The whistles serve both as timekeepers and moral police.
That’s a crushing observation for all three involved, even if it’s an oblivious one on the husband’s part. It’s also another example of the way Brief Encounter—like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which it returns to over and over—captures roiling emotions with elegant panache. As time went on, Lean’s movies would become bigger (and arguably even more elegant), but I’m not sure they were ever better than this.