Although I’d never seen Brief Encounter in full, I thought I knew what it would be like. I’d seen various short clips, and gained an impression of the impossibly posh, clipped voices, the emotional repression and the strained nobility of behaviour. I’d also seen the scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys which gently mocks the poignant final moments.
However, none of this gets anywhere near the experience of watching the film as a whole. This year I went on a visit to Carnforth in Lancashire, where the famous railway scenes were filmed. I saw the opening scenes of the film on a large screen in the waiting room at the museum there, where it seems to be shown on a loop – and, getting hooked on the story within minutes, quickly realised it was very different from the impression of it I’d acquired. I now have the DVD (the region 2 version which sadly doesn’t have a commentary, though it does have a featurette going behind the scenes), have watched it in full a couple of times, and am full of admiration.
Yes, the voices are clipped, but after a few moments this really doesn’t matter, or doesn’t to me anyway. If you forget to laugh at the accent, the main thing about Celia Johnson’s voiceover as Laura is how bare she lays her emotions, how honest she is. There aren’t very many films with a woman’s voiceover throughout, as in this one – and I think this may be one of the reasons this particular film holds such a lasting power for so many people.
A striking element of the film’s construction is that it begins with the end – the agonising parting between Laura (Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) at a station tearoom, where they are interrupted by an irritating acquaintance of Laura’s, Dolly (Everley Gregg), and have to hide their emotions in polite conversation. (I love the way that Dolly is both infuriating and hilarious at this key moment, bringing in unwanted black humour as she gossips remorselessly about her boring life and demands tea, chocolate and attention.)
I think the knowledge that it will all end with a noble renunciation makes it easier for an audience to sympathise with the couple all through the film, rather than worrying about Laura’s kindly, boring husband, Fred ( Cyril Raymond) and Alec’s unseen, “rather delicate” wife, Madeleine. The title has already made it clear that this is an encounter which won’t last – so viewers can feel for these soulmates as they share their stolen hours, knowing that it won’t in the end break up their marriages or cause lasting damage, except to their own hearts. There isn’t the uncertainty about how it will all end which would have been there at a first viewing of another doomed romance, Casablanca.
However, within the short period that the couple are meeting at the railway station, with its feeling of everything being snatched and temporary, the film doesn’t slur over the real pain and sordidness of the clandestine relationship. There are several scenes of intense embarrassment when the couple fear their love is going to be exposed - not only the meeting with Dolly, but the earlier meeting with another acquaintance at a restaurant, where Laura is forced to come up with elaborate, transparent lies, including the pretence that Alec is a family friend who has been round to dinner at their house. Most embarrassing of all is the moment when Alec and Laura have actually gone to a borrowed flat together, with the unspoken likelihood that they will finally have sex, only to be disturbed by the owner of the flat returning early.
Nicola Beauman writes in her book A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39 that the couple actually have an affair in the original stage play, but this was changed for the film, so that the romance remains unconsummated. I’d be interested to know whether this was down to the censors or to the director. In any case, like the twist of beginning the film with the end, it helps to ensure that members of the audience will sympathise – because, after all, the couple have not committed the “sin” of adultery. However, it’s hard to think that it would be any less hurtful for Fred or Madeleine if they discovered the affair, consummated or not.
Beauman’s book was inspired by her viewing of Brief Encounter , because, she writes, she wanted to learn about the novels which Laura had been reading – such as the Kate O’Brien novel which she picks up from the library near the start of the film. Beauman also writes: “I wanted, also, to learn something about Laura’s life, which, because it was so respectable, ordinary and everyday, has been little documented.”
Her discussion of the life of a middle-class woman of the period is fascinating, but I also find myself wanting to know something about Laura’s life as an individual through the rest of her week, apart from the intense, “brief” encounters with Alec (Trevor Howard), where she comes to feel fully alive. In that opening/closing scene with Dolly, she thinks/says in voiceover “I wish you were a real friend, not a gossipy acquaintance.”
But does Laura have any real friends? She confides in no one about her dilemma, and the only friend she speaks to on the phone, Mary, is someone she is using as a (quite unnecessary) cover story, a woman she hasn’t seen for months. Her visits to the nearby town are solitary occasions where she normally eats and sees a movie on her own. Her evenings with Fred, kind and endlessly supportive though he may be, are apparently spent in near-silence, as he pores over the Times crossword and asks her to turn the music down. Instead of wanting romance in his life, he just wants the word as an answer to a crossword clue. The fact that the whole film is addressed to Fred, as a silent monologue she would love to say to him but never can, could express how close she feels to him – or how far away. I’ve been turning this over and over in my mind and am not sure which way to take it. In any case, there’s clearly something missing from her life – and I think perhaps that something is not just excitement, but conversation.
As well as the posh accents, another thing which might have put me off watching Brief Encounter in the past was the perception that the working-class characters, such as Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey), who runs the refreshment room, and her admirer Albert (Stanley Holloway) are seen as dispensable comic relief. Within my fairly limited viewing of older movies so far, it seems to me as if this is often a problem with older British films, as opposed to American ones of the same period, such as the gritty Warner movies where the working-class characters often take centre stage. However, watching the whole film rather than isolated clips, I see this isn’t wholly the case with Brief Encounter. Myrtle’s ludicrously refined accent is indeed played for laughs (ironic that Johnson’s own accent has now become equally a thing to be mocked). But there are glimpses of a story which is just as moving as Laura’s, especially when Myrtle tells her colleague, Beryl, how she left her husband and was forced to earn her own living.