Brief Encounter (1945)

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.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

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.

David Lean’s direction and Noel Coward’s script, adapted from his play Still Life, are both great, and the dark, austere scenes, always full of the wartime atmosphere though the war is never mentioned, linger in the memory long after watching.

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.

In the tearoom

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.”

Celia Johnson and Cyril Raymond

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.

Joyce Carey as Myrtle

Joyce Carey as Myrtle

9 thoughts on “Brief Encounter (1945)

  1. Ellen Moody

    Dear Judy,

    (I’m writing up some more of what I wrote last night)

    I read your excellent account of Brief Encounter: I’ve read comments by Celia Johnson on this film which put me off: she talks of her beautiful face and voice. Trevor Howard is also on record making comments showing he was embarrassed about their not having sex. Perhaps we are better off not knowing what most of these actors and actresses thought of their work. She is showing off her repressed sexuality, and he is embarrassed by the woman’s point of view in the film which keeps genital sex from occurring.

    I’m not sure about the female narrator. Yes it’s very unusual then (a little less so today — think of all the Austen films, Julie Delpy and some modern women’s films lately too), but I kinda feel that what has traditionally been made to account for the film’s power is accurate to: the dark shots, the train, the relentless intensity, the shadows, the music all contribute too.

    Look at that still of the pair of them in the coffee shop. The anonymity of the modern world, but also its impoverished state. The alternative was lavish costume drama of the Gainsborough Studio’s type and (later I admit) Ealing comedies. I did love that Beauman book which seemed to suggest this movie was a film version of many of the novels of this period — only most of them not masterpieces of art as this is. I feel that is involved as the Cagney movies you’ve been writing so wonderfully about are an equivalent of a male novel that never gets written: one where the vulnerability of the male is laid open before us, and his real troubles in life, pressure to make a living, pressure to be successful in sheer money, pressure to be outrageously sexually aggressive — and results like alcoholism.

    A few thoughts,
    Ellen

    Reply
  2. judyge Post author

    Thanks for this. I do agree that the darkness, music, shadows and train all contribute to the film’s mood, helping to create that “relentless intensity”.

    I liked the Beauman book too and it has left me wanting to read more novels from this period, although as yet I haven’t read all that many of them – I do have one or two Kate O’Briens, the author Laura chooses at the library in the opening scene, so maybe will read something by her soon.

    Reply
  3. Ellen Moody

    More on accents: sometimes the “plumy” or posh accent adds something. Take Harriet Walters. Emma Thompson refers to her presence as a “cut-glass accent” which adds its own hard sarcastic resonance.

    Ellen

    Reply
  4. Ellen E. Martin

    Just a few notes from another Ellen…

    It is easier for the lovers to have a consummated affair in the one-act play because it is not shown nor expected to be shown on the stage, whereas in a film, more can potentially be shown to the audience, so one must bring in the restraint, the sense that in some way or another this romance is destined for frustration, in some other way.

    The film is carried by so many things already mentioned (the b&w photography, the composition, the rhythm and the images of rhythm), but I would add her voice to that list: her voice, which has depth and variation as well as precision, carries the film, in rather the same way as Martin Sheen’s voice-over carries Apocalypse Now, at least in its narrative aspect.

    I also can’t help liking Celia Johnson (i.e. assuming I would like her if I met her) also because she married Peter Fleming, the greatest travel narrator/writer of the century (in my humble opinion). They are buried beside each other in the graveyard of St Barnabas in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, not hard to find.

    The key that tells us the working class comic relief is not “mere” relief, but a telling commentary on the main romance with an interest of its own, as you suggest, is the degree of entertainment it provides. Myrtle who cares about her relationships is no mere Dolly the bothersome default acquaintance.

    I have read commentaries on this film that take Fred as embodying the evil of paternalistic male oppression. This does not persuade. I am always disappointed that she goes back to Fred, but I do not see him as the villain, either individually or by his role in society/family. It is rather a matter of that sad relinquishment of the intensest things that befalls us many times. Often the plot of romantic fiction presents two men or two women partly in order to portray the ambivalence people in real life feel towards the one man or woman they have chosen, and who disappoints them almost as much as they inspire and nourish.

    Reply
  5. Judy Post author

    Many thanks to Ellen Martin for visiting my blog and commenting. I haven’t read anything by Peter Fleming, or don’t think I have, but it sounds as if I ought to do so.

    I do agree that Myrtle is far more of a character in her own right than Dolly, whose life has no interest in itself whatsoever. On Fred, in the 1974 remake, his character does seem rather more paternalistic/ oppressive, ordering Anna (the name of the heroine in that version) around, though I don’t think he is the villain there either…

    I’m very struck by your final point about using two men or two women to portray ambivalent feelings towards a partner – this is something I’ll be thinking about some more. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

    Reply
  6. Judy Post author

    From Humphrey Jenkins:

    I cannot imagine how I have missed your superb appraisal of Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ on the excellent Movie Classics web site, other than that pressure of work and the sheer amount of material there is available on the web has hidden it from me.

    I do appreciate that the remarks in this mail are now hopelessly outdated as you appear to have written your review 3 years ago but feel that it would be remiss of me not to add my congratulations to a splendid article which seems, in my opinion, to have recognised most of the elements in the film and dealt with them in an even handed and knowledgeable manner. The only thing that still has me wondering, as I haven’t read so many of the other reviews you have written, is whether or not you are English or possibly American (this is gleaned from your mention of the DVD 2 Region disc that you have seen) as opposed presumably to the American DVD 1 Region.

    It matters only because I am fascinated that this film should reach the minds and souls of so many different cultures. I am an elderly man now, living in the Western Ghats (mountains) of Southern India where I have been for nearly two decades. I have a fairly large stock of films here to keep my memory fresh as I fear that I cannot appreciate the mass of Bollywood stuff that appears on TV. I have a small family of three and I am constantly amazed that all of them (females) not only understand ‘Brief Encounter’ but watch it avidly about every six months. It’s known as ‘that train fillum’ by them.

    I first showed it to them to illustrate my roots and origins as I was born in the period in which the film is set and raised in exactly the class of persons that Johnson, Howard, Carey and Holloway portray. Noel Coward’s ability to write dialogue for such characters is at the heart of the matter. Nevertheless I do find it astounding that people from the South Asian continent, with no knowledge of England or the 2nd World War or the privations and class snobbery that existed at that time should find any empathy at all with the film.

    In truth, I knew the Lauras, the Alecs, the Dolly Messiters, Myrtles (and the Beryls) and most certainly the Freds of that period. They were/are mirror images of my parents, friends of my parents and the middle class people of middle class Britain of the 1940′s. They spoke, dressed and behaved in precisely the manner the characters behave in the film although of course no-one spoke of such things in those days. I well recall attending my primary school with the daughter of a lady who was or became divorced and although she and the girl became friends of the family, no-one spoke of the situation. Ever. It just wasn’t the done thing. She was the only divorcee that I knew until I reached at least my late teens.

    But why should that intensely private and buttoned up society rings any bells with people from another age, another class or continent? What is the magic of the tale that makes it so universally understood, clipped accents and all. On that subject, I feel that the only rather exaggerated portrayals in the film are those of the children of Fred and Laura – surprising that Lean could settle for those brief but jarring performances. Valentine Dyall’s (Stephen) essay was also too unsympathetic and caustic but the actor was given little opportunity to do anything else – perhaps that’s why he was uncredited.

    I want you to believe that Myrtle existed in the bread and pastry shop near to where I lived, eyes flapping, ‘refained’ accent and all and who was the figure of much mirth in our family although we too were probably mocked for our ‘plum in the mouth’ speech as it was then described. Coward, like Bennett now, must have known and observed such characters keenly and I suppose they must have existed in greater abundance than I imagined.

    The final inexplicable point for me is Lean’s choice of Carnforth as his railway station when the town itself is supposedly set in the Midlands (Alec refers to his patients suffering from various lung diseases common in the mining areas of the time), whereas the street scene portrays a much more affluent area than either Lancashire or the Potteries could offer at that time, much more akin to Leatherhead or Tenterden. When preparing this mail I researched this mythical town and find that Carnforth was used as it was considered to be ‘a safe place’ from the blitz that was besieging Britain at the time. True but it still ‘looks’ wrong to those who know!

    All this has made me pine for a visit to The Kardomah and hopefully a ‘private’ booth where my mother and the Dollys used to gossip endlessly even though the ones I knew never stretched to a three piece orchestra, led by Irene Handl or not. I hope that it has not sent you to sleep!

    Once again, congratulations – I shall now delve into some or your many other reviews, now that I have the time.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Just to say that I have thanked Humphrey for this detailed comment and appreciation of the film, which has me for one wanting to watch it all over again!

  7. Chris Fairey

    I have just watched Brief Encounter on Channel 4, having had a couple of hours free. As with other contributors, and having not seen the film previously, other than through the eyes of “The History Boys” and the mocking of the accents and sensibilities by Victoria Wood; I found the film much more interesting and moving than I had imagined. As a child, I remember my grandmother (from Morecambe) commenting on how the film was shot at Carnforth. Knowing what a dump Carnforth was when I was a child growing up close by in Lancaster; I also find the incongruity of the accents and general affluent street scenes with the railway station amusing. Carnforth railway station today is a sad place where few trains stop, and where you only get a glimpse of old train carriages from the Virgin express streaking through the station.

    I am pleased that the affair was not consummated, and the declarations of love after only a couple of buns and trips to the cinema seems to me a bit unlikely. Unrequited passion is much more dramatic in film than the wham bam affairs more often seen in later films; and a lot more representative of what the middle classes of that time would have wished to see.

    Having said that, aren’t English people from the 40s and 50s showing emotions funny?

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Chris, thank you very much for your comment – sad to hear that about Carnforth. I have visited, but concentrated on the replica tea room and tributes to ‘Brief Encounter’ there – I remember the film playing on a loop on a large screen – rather than on the modern station with the Virgin Express streaking through. I agree the film is far more moving than you would expect after coming to it via the parodies such as the scene in ‘The History Boy’.

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