‘Affair’. It is a six letter word that feels more like four. Most four letter words sting for as long as there are letters to pronounce in them. ‘Affair’ is different. Its sting lasts beyond the last breath of ‘air’ of the word itself, and of the relationship in question. Brief Encounter is about an affair. But it is an affair that breathes life back into two middle-aged Britons. Do not make the assumption that these two people fall in love for malicious reasons. What you will find instead is one of the truest expressions of love captured in a film. The very species of love where empathy is less of a condition, and more so a feature of love itself.
Laura is one victim of love’s mysterious hold over our lives. She is not unhappy. With a loving husband and two children, how could she possibly be anything but happy? But she is not happy. It is not until one evening at a railway station that she comes to the realization that she has not been happy nor unhappy for quite some time. In fact, she has been leading a blanketed life of routines and habits that have put her feelings to sleep. Her whole life changes when a piece of soot gets caught in her eye from a passing train. A handsome doctor named Alec comes to her rescue to remove it. Not only does Alec remove it, but he wakes Laura up to a life that lay dormant from her. In other words, they fall in love.
Brief Encounter is one of the most romantic movies of all time. That much is true. But it is not romantic in the sense that its story is grand or triumphant. What you will find instead is a modest film that deals in modest terms. For Laura and Alec, they find their romance at matinees and afternoon walks around the park. This all might sound rather dull, but it never feels that way because of the performances.
Celia Johnson brings a remarkable acuity to Laura’s character, so much so that it seems as if she is playing two different characters entirely. At times, she seems frail with love sickness and wrinkles that reveal her age. And in others, she glows beautifully with kinder wrinkles that accompany her smiles and laughter. There is one moment in the film when Laura listens to Alec talk about his vocation in preventative medicine. Laura makes a comment about how Alec “suddenly looks much younger”, but really the same can be said about her as well.
And so it is easy to see why Laura has difficulty coming home with a sober state of mind. She has never lied to her husband, not once. Though, I highly doubt that her husband could ever guess what is on her mind. He cannot see past Laura’s reassurance of being “perfectly happy”. There is a complete division between the two of them, as if their words have no way of reaching each other. But what could Laura tell her husband? Her honesty would only serve to spoil every moment of happiness that she has ever shared with her family. Every single memory would be left with a twinge of bitterness, no matter how early those moments might have happened.
So Laura imagines herself giving a confession to her husband. It all happens on the night that Alec boards a train out of Laura’s life forever. This confession frames the structure of Brief Encounter as Laura recounts those weeks in detail, from the beginning all the way up until the end. Despite all of Laura’s insights, Alec remains about as elusive as the inky black shadows of the railway station. It is not a criticism of the film itself, but I have noticed that Alec is a difficult character to write about. He is Laura’s ideal, and we only see him through a lover’s eyes, which makes him about as hard to pin down as a daydream. Laura might reconcile Alec’s final goodbye with the simple fact that he is a stranger. But we should all know that it takes more than a simple fact to mend a broken heart.
In short, Brief Encounter is a subtle film. It is subtle in the sense that our hearts are. Often times our hearts are caught in the crossfire between two, three different feelings all at once. And that does not even include our innumerable thoughts and those pesky shadows of a doubt left on the sidelines making noise and egging us on. David Lean is aware of this, and has directed a film with enough sensitivity to respect the complexities of falling in love and being alive. He understands that there is a glint of sadness in joy, but that there is also an atom of hope in every feeling of despair too. Feelings are really just compromises. And sometimes we all just need a little soot in our eyes to understand that.
Brief Encounter is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The film stars Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, and Margaret Barton.