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Should I Watch..? Brief Encounter
What's the big deal?
Brief Encounter is a romantic drama film released in 1945, loosely based on the one-act play Still Life by Noël Coward. It centres on the emotional fall-out created by two separately married people who develop a deep attraction for each other. Winning the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and earning nominations at the Academy Awards, the film's stature has only grown over the years and it is now considered one of the greatest romantic films of all time. Indeed, the British Film Institute (BFI) voted the film as the second greatest British film in history behind 1949's The Third Man (1) in a poll held in 1999. The film would also cement director David Lean's reputation as a world-class director and even today, remains a powerfully evocative look at the dangers of forbidden love.
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What's it about?
The film is a flashback with a narration provided by married housewife Laura Jesson, a respected middle-class lady trapped in an affectionate but dull marriage. Returning from a day in town shopping, she is helped by kindly gentleman Dr Alec Harvey when she gets a small piece of grit in her eye. Enjoying each others company, they agree to meet up again soon despite both being married and with children.
Before long, they quickly discover that their feelings for each other are greater than either of them supposed. With people talking about their blossoming relationship, they feel the need to become ever more discreet. Will Laura and Alec ever find a way to be together or are they destined to be forever parted?
Trailer - Blu-ray reissue
Dr Alec Harvey
Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean & Ronald Neame *
Release Date (UK)
26th November, 1945
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actress (Johnson), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay
What's to like?
It's easy to think of old black-and-white movies as being a bit rigid, formal and stagey, especially if they're British or based on a play. Brief Encounter shatters that preconception by being wonderfully scored, beautifully shot and perfectly performed. The film's central premise would have been controversial at the time but even today, it's all too easy to identify with Johnson's desperate housewife who clings to a fantasy even when all hope appears lost. The performances of Howard and Johnson are utterly compelling and at no point in the film does your attention stray from their personal tragedies.
Most modern movies that dare to call themselves "romantic" are anything but, fuelled by at least one sex scene (where the female cast member will reveal far more than their male counterpart) and humour which is both implausible and unfunny. Brief Encounter is possibly the most romantic film I can think of and is brave enough to show that love does have a dark side when it becomes all-consuming. The drama is elevated further by the stirring piano soundtrack by Rachmaninoff while Lean's noir-ish use of lighting illustrates exactly how dark he's prepared to go. Even at the end, as the train rushes past Laura stood on the platform, you can barely believe that a film forged in the dying embers of World War 2 could be this powerful, this dramatic and this surprising. It is an absolute masterpiece.
- The film trailer they watch in the theatre is for "Flames Of Passion" based on the novel "Gentle Summer" by Alice Porter Stoughey. Neither of these exist in real life.
- Carnforth station was chosen as the setting for the film because it was so far away from the south of England that there would be enough time during an air raid warning for the crew to turn out the lights and comply with the war-time blackout restrictions.
- The cast and crew were given the day off on May 8th, 1945. Not only was it VE Day but the cameras being used for the film were required in London to cover the celebrations there.
What's not to like?
By the social standards of today, Brief Encounter does feel almost quaint in its innocence. If it were filmed these days, the film would take on the feel of something much more sordid and exploitative like Last Tango In Paris (2) or the frankly pornographic 9 Songs (3). Thankfully, the film does have a refreshing sense of decency but the moral panic the characters go through feels a touch overblown to contemporary viewers. It almost feels like a soap opera.
I would have liked a bit more from the supporting cast, given that they feel surplus to requirements at times. Only Gregg's talkative busybody Mrs Messiter makes an impact on the story and even that is unintentional. The comic exchanges between Barton's tea-lady and Stanley Holloway's station guard are funny but they do break up the tension. However, there also provide a contrast to the relationship of the central characters - here are two other people who meet in the same place every day and flirt outrageously with each other but there is no spark between them. And quite frankly, picking holes in Brief Encounter feels wrong - it is often hailed as the greatest romantic film in history for a reason. It's magnificent.
Should I watch it?
If you've never been in love then the movie might pass you by but for everybody else, Brief Encounter remains a stirring and emotional watch even today. It may well be a product of its time but the performances, direction, screenplay and score fit together perfectly to create an evocative, powerful and timeless fable about the perils of forbidden passion and the pressures of society. I heartily recommend this film to everyone - even cynics like me will be hopelessly bowled over by it.
Great For: romantics, steam train enthusiasts, adults, people snobby about black-and-white films
Not So Great For: hyperactive children, bored housewives
What else should I watch?
Given that I reckon Brief Encounter is the best romantic film ever made, that's quite a tall order. There are plenty of classic romantic movies to watch - From Here To Eternity (4) and Casablanca (5) are two that instantly spring to mind. The former won a staggering 8 Oscars at the Academy Awards that year while the latter has become synonymous with doomed love affairs and war-time patriotism. Both remain remarkable films to watch and blow away most of their modern equivalents with ease.
Of course, there are some decent romantic movies being made these days but few without the obligatory comedy or nudity. Films like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (6) dares to try something very different while fluff like Love, Actually (7) and Notting Hill (8) all stick to the same formula - in fact, the only film I can think of that acts as a proper romance is Sleepless In Seattle (9) which has the novel feature of keeping the two leads apart for most of the film and deals with feelings of loneliness as well as love.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox