Have you really never seen Brief Encounter? What have you been doing all these years? You have a treat in store.
I have a great love for British films of the 1940s. There seems to have been a great flowering of creative talent then, and the films of the period look beautiful, and have such wonderful characters in them. David Lean is more famous for his huge Technicolor epics, like Lawrence of Arabia, or A Passage to India, but Brief Encounter is his most moving film. It is shot in atmospheric black and white, and tells the story of two people who fall in love, in mundane little England.
Celia Johnston plays Laura, a middle class woman who lives a happy but predictable life, who meets Dr. Alec Harvey, played by craggy Trevor Howard. There starts a doomed love affair, set to the sweeping romantic sounds of Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto. This single piece of music plays throughout the film, and stirs up exactly the right emotions. The film will make you want to own a recording of the music.
Such is the power and influence of this film, that it has been remade a few times, and spoofed on countless occasions. It created the archetype for the romantic farewell on a station platform, with steam hissing from trains, and an orchestra playing in the background. Though this has been copied often, it has never been bettered. The film involves a few scenes on railway platforms, and some of these are mundane, others joyous, or despairing, wretched. The director uses many deft tricks to heighten the emotion all along the way. A simple tilt of the camera, or contrasting mood of another character, serves to add tremendous power to the emotion of the scenes.
Times were different then. People were brasher, accents were stronger, and social attitudes to affairs quite different. The period of the film gives it much of its charm. It does not make it a cold study of a different culture, however. The film is very personal. The character of Laura’s husband is hardly seen in the entire film, which means that we identify more with Laura’s feelings. We see the affair and next to nothing else.
Celia Johnson brings a great deal to the film. She is so likeable, and so able to express the misery that her new love brings her. Her manner of speaking is quite alien to a modern ear. In the 1940s, it was quite normal to add a Y sound to many words. “Hat” became "hyat". The accents are not forced, though - they come across as quite natural, and very likeable.
This film would not be made this way today. The modern audience would demand younger stars, and nudity. See this film to witness how it was once possible to make films about love without bedroom scenes. Brief Encounter is very much stronger for lack of these. Stoicism and restraint are under-rated traits in modern cinema. Modern directors and writers would do well to remind themselves with this film, that a story can be given tremendous emotional power by techniques which seem to have been lost.