Brief Encounter (1945)

Dir. David Lean. Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Cyril Raymond

At least it wasn’t penalties.

When Laura Bassett’s clearance fell short and went in off the crossbar (half an hour after Toni Duggan’s shot went out off the crossbar), resulting in a crushing own goal with no time left for England to regroup, the result was unsurprising. England’s soccer team had made it to the semifinals – the Three Lions/Lionesses never get past the semis, much less make the final, much less win the whole thing. In recent culture, I think that international soccer is the only thing which consistently reminds us that there is a deep sadness in English culture that merely waits for its moment to come out. From the 1990 World Cup (if the English telecast is going to feature opera, even one with an ostensibly happy ending, it’s their own fault for tempting fate) to that devastating own goal tonight, we keep seeing that snakebitten tendency in English football. (Though, congrats to England for taking third place in the Women’s World Cup. Tabea Kemme, the Summer of my German Footballer, was the  defender closest to Kelley O’Hara when she scored in the semi, and she fouled Lianne Sanderson to give England the penalty that won them third place. My heart aches for her. Take that however you like.)

Of course, I think the sadness is there in the self-deprecating humor as well. Gilbert Gottfried making jokes about the earthquake that devastated Japan in 2011 and screeching something in his defense about “This is how I cope” sounds ludicrous. Yet the existence of Steve Coogan and David Mitchell and Stephen Fry makes me wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of having to use humor just to compensate for being English. Remember John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda?

Archie: Wanda, do you have any idea what it’s like being English? Being so correct all the time, being so stifled by this dread of, of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone, ‘Are you married?’ and hearing, ‘ My wife left me this morning,’ or saying, uh, ‘ Do you have children?’ and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we’re all terrified of embarrassment…

What could be more embarrassing than knocking the ball into your own net and single-handedly consigning your team to the consolation match?

That embarrassed sadness is expressed better in Brief Encounter than in any other piece of English culture that I can think of. Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) are as holy a pair of doomed lovers as anyone in English writing not named “Romeo” and “Juliet” – being from Albion rather than Italy, their reserved silences and worried conversation bear little similarity to the flowery bombast of the Veronese teens; the only character in Romeo and Juliet whom we might mistake for English is Mercutio, although he is perhaps more Irish – or New York Jewish – than anything else.

There are, by and large, three kinds of serious film romances. The first is the kind that leaves you content. When Harry Met Sally… is the example that comes to mind first for me. WALL-E is in this category, as are Bringing Up Baby and The Apartment and even Sideways. This is not to say that it necessarily needs to be a comedy, although that helps; the inclusion of The Apartment shows that you can actually have some very serious moments but still send the audience home happy. The second is the kind that I think most of us are drawn to: something conspires to keep the lovers from being together, but there is some satisfaction, some catharsis in the way that annuals are more beautiful than perennials, or in the way that Selenicereus grandiflorus is more radiant than a redwood. Casablanca is the cornerstone of this type, though Gone with the Wind has a fair challenge. Annie Hall belongs here, and Cabaret, and Titanic, of course. There is more variance here than in the two other types: the Contented romance tends to be a comedy, and the type we’re about to talk about is tragic. But there’s room for epics, war pictures, comedies, whatever in this Annuals category.

That third category. Brief Encounter. The Reader. Atonement. Depending on what kind of day you’ve had, maybe Doctor Zhivago belongs here. Movies that you finish watching and you wish that you were dead. (Grave of the Fireflies is an exemplar of that “I wish I was dead so I didn’t have to think about this” genre, but it’s certainly not a story of romantic love, so it doesn’t really belong. Shame and everything else Steve McQueen has directed will also make you want to rip out your eyes from the hurt – heck, Shame hurts for reasons not unlike the reasons Grave of the Fireflies hurts, and that’s the weirdest thing I’ll write this month.)

My favorite review I’ve ever heard of Atonement was from a young woman I went to college with, who said she saw Atonement in theaters, walked out, and “ugly cried. They weren’t those pretty tears you see in the movies.” Then she mocked a sob, that “huh-huh, huh-huh” noise you hope you don’t have to hear – or make – but once every few years. It’s easy enough to make actors cry, but there isn’t an actor living or dead who can feign a sob, that gasping for air that so beautifully mirrors what it is we feel when we watch those movies, like we can’t even breathe because who would want to after seeing this movie, and we get up to turn it off but our limbs don’t work because our blood has turned cold. This is the Ugly Crying category, and Brief Encounter is the snottiest and teariest flick of the bunch.

Part of what makes Brief Encounter so painful is that, for people my age, it’s hard to think of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as anything more than Laura and Alec. At least when I watch Atonement, I can say to myself, “Oh, that’s Keira Knightley, and she’s going to be almost as good in another Joe Wright movie five years from now about how putting your faith in love will set you free from your body and your misery all at once.” But there’s no such relief for a twenty-something Yankee seeing Celia Johnson staring at the tracks. I practically had a fit when I watched Gandhi a few months ago and couldn’t figure out who the judge was sending Ben Kingsley to prison: it was Trevor Howard, Wikipedia told me, almost forty years older than he was in Brief Encounter. I’ve never seen Celia Johnson in anything else; she left off of acting to have kids and then went into British television and British theater that is almost totally inaccessible to someone like me.  She is Laura.  And like we learned from Inside Out, as well as the various international New Waves, there’s no better way to see yourself on the screen than to look at an actor or actress who you couldn’t pick out of a lineup otherwise.

It’s very odd to watch a David Lean movie and know it’ll be over in less than an hour and a half; for comparison’s sake, if I put Brief Encounter on a loop at the same time you turned on Lawrence of Arabia, I could be almost done my third viewing by the time you finished your first one. Maybe that’s an egregious example, but you could still watch Brief Encounter twice in about the same amount of time it would take to watch Bridge on the River Kwai once. Yet there’s something about the  disconnect in length across Lean’s oeuvre that I find attractive; it’s a statement of virtuosity. James Joyce wrote the best novel in English and probably the best novella and some of the best short stories. Ulysses is huge, The Dead isn’t long enough to even be considered a novel, and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” (which I have a soft spot for) is short. Or take Michelangelo, who was a sculptor and probably is best remembered for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Brief Encounter is Lean’s “Araby” or Sistine Chapel, where he more or less eschewed a feature we expect from his films. “Length” is obviously the feature that comes to mind first, but the more I think about it, this is one of the rare major Lean films that has just about nothing to do with war or Charles Dickens. Lawrence of Arabia is World War I, Doctor Zhivago the Russian Revolution, and Bridge on the River Kwai World War II. Great Expectations and Oliver Twist speak for themselves. Brief Encounter stands out to me as totally unlike the other big ones; after working as editor on two early Archers films, 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, and then directing a similarly Britain-good-Nazis-bad flick (based on a Noel Coward play) called In Which We Serve, he directed three more Coward adaptations, the last of which was Brief Encounter. It’s very tempting to read Brief Encounter as a final draft after a bunch of Coward rough drafts, or to see it as the culmination of more than a decade of editing features. It is not Lean’s only love story by any means (“Yuri!” “Lara!”), but there couldn’t be one more succinct.

From the first real scene post-opening credits  (which is mostly shots of trains rushing back and forth and has Rachmaninoff behind it, so I don’t know how you wouldn’t think of Russia/Anna Karenina – and it gets worse when Laura says she feels like she’s lost her peace!) the banality of this love affair which makes it so breathtakingly painful is pumping full-bore. About fifteen minutes in, Laura laments to herself, “If only it were someone else’s story and not mine,” and for some moments in the early going, it certainly looks like it’s going to be somebody else’s story. Laura and Alec are barely in the picture, although as the railway officer comes in, Alec has just turned his head away from the camera and is walking back to Laura, at a table in the far right side of the shot. This is proof that good editing exists outside The French Connection and, I dunno, the jump cut in 2001.

It takes a good thirty seconds for us to realize that Laura and Alec are important, and not just scenery in this scene which features the railway officer (a pre-Alfred Doolittle Stanley Holloway) and the lady behind the counter (Joyce Carey), because that’s how long it takes for the focus to go from the nameless people to the pair in the corner who are deeply serious, whispering about something beneath the officer’s story about how he had to confront a man sitting in first-class about his third-class ticket. From the beginning, there’s a strong whiff of “How’d you think you were going to get away with this?” It’s a masterful hint, subtly folded in.

By the five-minute mark, Alec is out the door. He doesn’t look back. We don’t see his face as he squeezes Laura’s shoulder. Laura and Alec are robbed of what should be their last precious moments together by the arrival of one of Laura’s acquaintances, a woman named Dolly (Everley Gregg, whose name is so British it’s almost Southern). Dolly looks like a less pointy version of Meryl Streep-as-Julia Child and chatters unbearably and gets Alec to buy her a cup of tea. Alec returns, Dolly is still yammering, and Laura and Alec can only make sad eyes forward, not even at each other, while a vague conversation about Alec’s medical practice. Alec’s impending move to Africa pops up. The bells ring. The announcement is made. Alec’s train is leaving.

Brief Encounter is right to note that our lives are ruled by time. It’s not in the same way that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button makes that note, a sort of glib statement about “if a-z had not happened precisely in this order, then Cate Blanchett would not have been hit by a car.” In some ways it is very similar to Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in One Day, sort of a belief that looking at small moments across the years will provide insight into the big picture. In One Day, July 15s over decades scroll across the screen; Brief Encounter focuses on about a month of Thursdaysand this is where the difference lies. Brief Encounter is not about charting change over time. Rather, it shows us that despite what we want, almost as if we’re in the Milgram experiment as the voice recording and not as the test subject, that because time has to go on, pushed by some stranger in a lab coat, we have to endure the consequences. Alec doesn’t have to leave on that train. But if he doesn’t, then he’ll miss it. And the timetable dictates his actions, and it dictates when his affair with Laura ends, just as it has dictated when each of their previous Thursdays has been cut off. To be ruled by a timetable is a banal way to live one’s life, and yet most of us are so ruled. If you want to watch the World Cup, the game is on at a certain time. The restaurants we go to are open from when to whenever. Our jobs last from sometime to some other time. And these are the hard timetables like a train schedule, to say nothing of soft ones which we can only negotiate so far: dinner times, bed times, response times.

The banality of the love affair is at the heart of this movie, and Laura certainly recognizes that the only interesting about herself or even the affair she had was the “violence” with which her infatuation takes over, an attraction which she had not credited the ordinary with being able to have. Alec, in an early conversation between the two, also recognizes the ordinariness of their lives through a wry remark. But the two of them also chart the reason why this film works through an early conversation at an accidentally shared lunch:

Alec: You’re too sane and uncomplicated.

Laura: I suppose it’s a good thing to be uncomplicated, but it does sound rather dull.

Alec: You could never be dull.

It’s also worth noting that once Laura has decided that, against her best judgment, she does love Alec, she sits on the train and looks out the window, and a movie plays on the window about what she imagines the two of them doing together: traveling, mostly, across Europe and to the tropics and engaging in operas and gondolas and palm trees. This is perhaps the more typical bourgeois escapist fantasy: travel. And it’s telling that what stops the dream is looking out the window and seeing not palm trees, but the everyday English plants near her train station. The extraordinary – or at least the different – is forced to yield to the ordinary again.

What stands out to me as the shining choice of the film (as far as I know, Still Life, the play this movie is based on, is a little more ambiguous on this topic – and to its own detriment) is that Laura and Alec never do get to consummate the relationship. The relationship dances through the steps: a long Thursday, he pushes, she withdraws, she wants to break it off before it can begin, she comes home and realizes her husband will never know or care; a Thursday where they are supposed to meet but he gets held up and she begins to worry; a Thursday where we learn that the English predilection for rowing appears to have skipped Alec, and a confession of love, and a clandestine kiss under the platforms as the newspapers fly, and lying to her husband about what she’d been up to today. Finally, they plan to have sex. Alec borrows a town friend’s key, expecting that he won’t be home until late; the friend, it turns out, comes home early. Laura escapes, but Alec is left behind and endures a pretty fair English tongue-lashing from his friend.

It’s an interesting bit of moralizing, maybe because I don’t find it distasteful. As much as you dislike that guy (“Stephen”) for coming back home, I can’t imagine I would be thrilled if I had given someone the key to my apartment and then come back and found he was planning on using my apartment as a love nest; this would be even more true if I had some conception of his wife/girlfriend. I suppose this is how it got past the censors…they don’t have sex, they kiss only a handful of times, and one of them has to face up to Hester Prynne-level shaming.

Would the movie move up to the “Annuals” category if they’d had sex? Probably. Usually that’s the missing ingredient, the one thing that the survivor(s) have to hang on to: we may have been pulled apart by this sinking ocean liner or World War II or Hollywood, but at least we have a physical reality-become-memory to cling to. I don’t think that’s tawdry; W.B. Yeats understood that without an object, especially a common one, to attach an important idea to, the idea itself would be lost. What is tangible is memorable.

And then, more or less, full circle. Laura and Alec sit silently in the busy refreshment room, and in comes Dolly, providing a marvelous example in how to speak quickly without stuttering or breathing. We discover that Laura meant to walk with Alec to his platform, maybe to watch him go and to provide a last second of closure, to watch him wave, perhaps, from the carriage, or merely see the train pull away, but in any event to provide a physical memory as lasting and as powerful as the sex they never achieved. This, to me, after a long lead-up about Laura coping with the reality that she will never see Alec again, is the root of the sadness. We go into the film, even, expecting that something will force the two of them apart. But Laura and Alec decide that not only will they break off the relationship of their own volition, but that they will not maintain contact or closeness. They rob themselves of comfort, even when comfort by way of a physical memory is in their grasp.

We learn where Laura went while Dolly was buying chocolates. It’s a marvelous monologue (followed by a telling dialogue), and it is memorable:

Laura: I really meant to do it. I stood there, trembling, right on the edge. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t brave enough. I should like to be able to say it was the thought of you and the children that prevented me. But it wasn’t. I had no thoughts at all. Only an overwhelming desire not to feel anything at all, ever again. Not to be unhappy anymore. I went back into the refreshment room. That’s when I nearly fainted.

The film is guided by Laura’s narration, which, once she returns home to her family for good, is directed to her husband. Fred (Cyril Raymond) is obviously kindly, a word which becomes a damning virtue once that suffix has been added. He is willing to allow the children more license than Laura and loves the crossword puzzles. He speaks quietly but one can almost hear the “eh? wot wot?” in his voice; perhaps it’s his penchant for telling Laura, a little lugubriously, “Have it your own way,” Or maybe it’s the mustache, and if it’s not the mustache it’s probably the jacket. He is the most boring man in Creation. Laura, emotionally reeling, recognizes that Fred would be the perfect confidant if only he weren’t, well, married to her. But Fred seems to understand, somehow, what has happened. “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” He isn’t angry. It is merely a fact.

Fred: Laura?

Laura: Yes, dear?

Fred: Whatever your dream was…it wasn’t a very happy one, was it?

Laura: No.

Fred: Is there anything I can do to help?

Laura: Fred, you always help.

Fred: You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.

I’ve seen Brief Encounter a few times, but I always like to watch a movie again before I write something like this to freshen up on the details. It might be telling, based on how I categorized this film in the world of movie romances, that it took me no fewer than three attempts – by which I mean putting the DVD into my laptop and letting it load and then staring at the home screen – over several days for me to finally watch it. I didn’t Ugly Cry (or even Pretty Cry) watching it, but there are feels that one can only manage occasionally. One does not go into battle without armor.

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