I was slightly surprised when I heard there had been a Brief Encounter remake, because the 1940s original (which I reviewed here recently) is such a masterpiece. (The 1990s movie Falling in Love, which I’ve also seen recently and like very much, isn’t really a remake, but a new film loosely inspired by the story.) However, having watched the version from 1974, a TV movie which stars Sophia Loren and Richard Burton, I now feel it is a tribute to the earlier movie – and a re-imagining of what it would be like if a couple faced the same dilemma in the 1970s.
This is not a classic which will endure and endlessly fascinate as the Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard film has done. But, for all that, I think it is an interesting, if flawed, movie, in its own right, and deserves better than to be dismissed out of hand.
Director Alan Bridges has also made many TV costume dramas, including BBC adaptations of classics dating back to the 1960s, and at least two movie period dramas which I loved, The Return of the Soldier, based on the Rebecca West novel, and The Shooting Party, from Isabel Colegate’s novel, so he does have a real love for material which looks back to the past. I don’t know much about John Bowen, the scriptwriter who has heavily reworked Coward’s plot and words, but he did write a number of TV plays and adaptations.
Their version of Brief Encounter has a costume drama feeling to it, although it is in the present day, beautifully shot in the green landscapes in and around Winchester and the New Forest. The trains and stations are still important, but not as central as they were in the original. Instead of going to restaurants and movies in dark buildings, the couple largely stay outdoors, eating picnics and going to a mystery play outside Winchester Cathedral, where the red dragon takes on something of the significance of the “Flames of Passion” movie in the original.
The main problem for me is the casting of the two leads. Sophia Loren’s beautiful face is so heavily made-up that it seems like an expressionless mask – she doesn’t have the emotion and sensitivity that make Celia Johnson’s portrayal so remarkable in the original, and it doesn’t help that in this version there is no voiceover. She seems to come alive more in the scenes with her quietly domineering husband, played by Jack Hedley, than she ever does with Burton.
For Richard Burton, brought in as male lead at the last minute after Robert Shaw pulled out, it’s the opposite problem. There’s too much intensity. By this time his drink problem and the famous turmoil in his personal life were written all too clearly in his face. Looking much older than his actual age of 49, he seems too haggard and weary for the role of Alec, and the initial jokey flirtation, unfolding during picnics and boat rides with Anna (Loren), doesn’t convince. Nor does the moment when he pleads with her to start a new life with him, saying: “We’re still young.” However, great actor that he was, he does bring a desperate, smouldering quality to the role at times, and is good in the many scenes where he is called on to be unhappy.
Instead of the stark black and white of the original, this 1970s version is in the most vivid colour imaginable, with everyone wearing reds and purples and shirts in intricate patterns. I grew up in the English countryside in the 1970s and so dramas in that setting have an extra nostalgic pull for me - probably this element of the film wouldn’t appeal so much to anyone who doesn’t remember the clothes and hairstyles and mindset. As in the original, emotional music helps to build the intense mood, although here it isn’t Rachmaninov but a new score by Cyril Ornadel.
Some of the dialogue is the same as in the Lean film, and the plot is mostly the same, including the fact that the relationship is unconsummated (Dad’s Army actor John Le Mesurier plays the friend who interrupts the couple in a borrowed flat), but there are many changes. One is that the story unfolds straight through, rather than beginning at the end – I suppose because by this time everyone already knows what that ending is.
Another is that the heroine, Anna, makes her weekly visit to town not just to shop, but to work at a Citizens’ Advice Bureau there. Here she meets a working-class wife and mother, Mrs Gaines (Rosemary Leach, giving possibly the best performance of the movie), who is being ill-treated by her husband, and tries to help her. As with the glimpses of Joyce Carey’s character in the Lean film, this secondary story seems to partly reflect what is happening to Anna and Alec, though here it isn’t comic relief, but potential tragedy. Through this story, the film also questions whether a married couple staying together is always the best outcome.
Although this film is nowhere near the standard of the classic original, I’m still glad to have seen it, and would say it is worth renting for anyone interested in a 1970s take on this story.