Brief Encounter (1974)

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.

briefencounterburtonThis 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.

Richard Burton and Sophia Loren in the station cafe

Richard Burton and Sophia Loren in the station cafe

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.

Sophia Loren on the train

Sophia Loren on the train

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.

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10 thoughts on “Brief Encounter (1974)

  1. Ellen Moody

    It’s interesting to know about. I’m reading _English Heritage, English Cinema_, a really intelligent look at costume drama focusing on the 80s and 90s. The 70s are part of the purview though — and landscape and milieu count.

    Ellen

    Reply
  2. judyge Post author

    Thanks, Ellen. I’m glad to hear that the book is good – I’d like to read it. Will hope to get hold of it.

    Judy

    Reply
  3. John Greco

    Hi Judy,

    Enjoyed your reviews on “Brief Encounter.” I have to admit I have not seen either version. The Burton-Loren TV movie was only released here in the States on VHS tape years ago and is long out of print. I am going to have to add the David Lean version to my ever growing list of films to watch.

    There is a 1984 movie called “Falling in Love” with Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep that either pays homage or rips off “Brief Encounter”, depending on your outlook. In this version, which takes place in New York City around Christmas time we have DeNiro and Streep who are married however, not to each other, and meet continually on a train forming a romantic relationship and just like in “Brief Encounter” the affair is never consummated. Sound familiar?

    Reply
  4. judyge Post author

    Hi John, thanks for commenting – sorry to be a little slow in responding but I’ve been dashing about. The David Lean version is a great movie, I hope you get to see it. I know what you mean about ever-growing lists of movies to watch.

    I have seen ‘Falling in Love’ and mainly liked it – I see it as another homage rather than a rip-off!:) I had meant to write about that one too, but my memories are starting to fade so I’d need to watch it again, I think…

    Reply
  5. ARAMIS

    This movie is a little slow. It has a couple of best actors. However, it must have been more dynamic. One alternative to change the before films was they consumed thier affairem making love madly, so the end could have been logical y they said goodbye later. Sometimes films can be showed equal but it can make some changes to difference from others.

    Reply
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  7. NeveR

    Really hard to know why they bothered with it isn’t it? And why, if they were going to bother, they decided Sophia Loren was the best bored English housewife they could find ;-)

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Hi Neve, It’s a while since I saw this but I did like it more than I expected to, though I certainly agree that Loren’s casting was rather odd. It does seem strange that such a famous film was remade.

  8. s.m.art.artlover

    One can purchase the 1974 remake now on iTunes and I having seen this on TV originally back in the late 80s am absolutely thrilled with the movie. I actually think it makes sense that they made a slight twist in the 74 remake with Lauren as the lead role, as she is now in it as an Italian married to an Englishman. This is another reason why Burton falls head over heels in love with her, from the chance 2nd meeting by the church where Lauren is eating her Prosciutto lunch…
    I think the movie is excellent and is like a breath of fresh air, compared to the drivel that passes off for movies or for actors for that matter.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Good to hear that this is now available on iTunes – I definitely think it is worth watching and would like to see it again. Thank you for the comment.

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