Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)

"I still have an affection for Brief Encounter, I have never really gotten over it"
-David Lean in 1963 

David Lean's Brief Encounter with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. Blog
Hasn't train travel changed? Standing, freezing at Warrington Bank Quay station (providing you managed to snag one of the three parking spaces available) with nothing but the the chimneys of the giant Unilever factory to stare at doesn't have quite the same charm to it as I imagine waiting for a train in the world of the Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945) has to it.

The screenplay was written by, and based upon a play by Noel Coward and makes famous musical use of Rachmaninoff throughout. It's told through the inner monologue of a happily married woman called Laura (Celia Johnson); as she secretly reveals her guilt to the audience whilst sitting with her husband. 

Laura goes into town every Thursday, to change her library book and watch a film at the cinema. One week, whilst waiting by the platform, she gets some grit into her eye due to an oncoming train and a doctor nearby helps her to remove it. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), whom is also married, soon bumps into her again whilst in a restaurant and after agreeing to meet up again, the two soon develop deep feelings for one another. They immediately realise that their love for one another is hopeless because of the family that the two of them have, and they are forced to separate forever when Alec is offered a new job in South Africa. Laura's thoughtful and attentive husband kneels by her, saying how distant she has seemed over the last couple of weeks and the two embrace.

Structurally, Brief Encounter is particularly memorable because it starts as the couple parts for the last time. Although we don't know this during the first viewing - when Laura and Alec are interrupted by Dolly (Everly Gregg), Laura's chatty friend she ruins any chance of them having a proper goodbye. Thus, when this scene is repeated at the end we now know these characters much more and each new technical addition to the scene is much more effective; as it's no longer filmed in an objective way like the opening. At the very start there is no music; the camera focusses more on Albert and Beryl - the train conductor and the tea shop keeper then it does with the doomed couple and when the camera does pass to them, we are 'still in the position of the frustrated eavesdropper' (Dyer, 1993: 55). Conversely, at the end we get Laura's internal dialogue and an additional shot from her side of the table - where she watches Alec leaving for the last time before the moment is abruptly interrupted by Dolly entering the frame and a racking focus that then completely erases him from Laura's life: 

Brief Encounter analysis blogspot.

Canted camera angle Robert Krasker Brief Encounter
The cinematography was done by Robert Krasker who is well known for his work with Carol Reed in The Third Man (1949) and Odd Man Out (1947). Lighting and camera angles help, especially in this last scene to highlight Laura's psychological state; a dramatic lighting cue and a slow pan into a canted close up of her face occurs just before her suicide attempt after Alec's departure. The noise of Dolly is muted out and her devastation means she's completely shut out & oblivious to the world around her.

This is one of many moments that are reminiscent of his (Krasker) two future films; this type of tilted camera angle permeates all throughout The Third Man. It's heavily steeped in noir and expressionistic aesthetics - techniques perhaps employed to heighten Laura's own sense of sin because of what she is committing, or the fact that the romance is completely ill fated. For example - when her and Alec kiss at the train station, they're drenched in heavy darkness both times. This guilt is something that authority figures and coincidental events also punctuate, e.g the priest staring at her on the train, the policeman questioning her by the war memorial, or when she returns home to her husband telling her that her son has been injured (which she believes to be an act of 'punishment').

brief encounter kiss

brief encounter analysis'Cinema is a matter of what is in the frame and what is out' according to Scorsese. David Bordwell, when writing about a moment similar to Brief Encounter that happens in Jezebel (Wyler, 1938) says that because offscreen space obviously isn't the focal point of attention for the audience; a sudden inclusion of something very important into the frame is often met with a startling effect (2010: 192). This is applicable to the moment when Alec places his hand on Laura's shoulder before leaving her with Dolly, the only possible way he had of showing his love for her given the company. This is effective largely because (more so the second time) the camera has been static upon Laura's expression for a matter of seconds prior, making the gesture more crushing, as we don't see Alec's face. 

The preciousness of time is a lingering theme that runs all through the film. We're repeatedly shown, both through images and dialogue this concept, like the clocks scattered throughout High Noon (Zinemann, 1952) we're reminded how fleeting their relationship is and how it hinges on the arrival and departure of trains. This is why the decision to set the picture at a station is so clever, and the comic relationship between Albert and Beryl in the platform refreshment room helps to emphasise how serious Laura and Alec's situation is by comparison. Giannetti states that 'the setting of a good film is not merely a backdrop for the action,but an extension of the themes and characterisation' (1972:155). The noise of the bell signalling incoming trains is often met with anxiety or sadness since it always means the end of their time together as they catch their separate trains; it's such an abrupt and unpleasant sound, the effects of which couldn't have happened if Brief Encounter was set in any other environment.

time in brief encounter

There are two things you can't imagine this film without, the music and the two leads. Both Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are perfect in their roles, it just wouldn't work as a Hollywood picture with two generic and stunning matinee idols. This understated casting helps to emphasise the realism of this British picture, that maybe an American production wouldn't have achieved. These characters touch us deeply, Slide says, because they are real people, ordinary unlike glamorous stars of the studio system (2013: 58).  It seems to (probably unintentionally) have a jab at Hollywood films with the cinema scenes, with the overwrought fictional b-movie Flames of Passion that she goes to see being a case in point. Speaking of the music, Dyer says that 'Brief Encounter without Rachmaninov is unimaginable' (1993: 49). Other than the emotional significance that it adds to certain moments - he points out that it serves a narrative importance since it is associated with Laura and disassociated with anyone else (1993: 17), halting and starting again depending on what she is going though. 

brief encounter

Despite not winning any Oscars upon release, it has since gained high recognition and a long-lasting legacy. 101 industry experts in a Time Out London poll and the Guardian have voted it the best romantic movie of all time above even Casablanca, whilst the BFI have ranked it #2 in a list of the best British films ever made. I've written in a past blog on Billy Wilder about how the themes in the film inspired the plot of The Apartment, and it was re-worked in 1984 for the De Niro and Streep film Falling In Love. Like any famous, iconic and well known picture, Brief Encounter has been open to more than a few parodies, especially for its dialogue - below is one that was made by Victoria Wood, which perfectly envisages what would happen if Laura accidentally threw a pork pie into her eye instead of some grit:



Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K., 2010. Film Art: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill

Dyer, R., 1993. Brief Encounter. London. British Film Institute 

Giannetti, L., 1972. Understanding Movies. New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.

Organ, S., (ed) 2009. David Lean: Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.

Slide, A., 2013. Fifty Classic British Films 1032-1982. Toronto: Dover Publications Inc.

The ending. Brief Encounter by David Lean