Jackson Arn reviews the classic British romance, which begins a weeklong run at Film Forum this Friday in a new DCP restoration.


I sat down to watch David Lean’s Brief Encounter thinking that I’d be experiencing something along the lines of a British Casablanca.  As with all great movies, my assumptions turned out to be completely wrong.  Casablanca is a grand adventure – a wonderful film, to be sure, but one that softens its sense of loss with the nobleness of fighting Nazis and the exoticism of North Africa.  Brief Encounter feels wiser, more grown up, more willing to face the banality of everyday life.  This movie understands the weariness that sets in when you realize that you’re no longer a kid, free to fall in and out of love.

The story is simple, even clichéd.  Laura (Celia Johnson, in a performance that earned an Academy Award nomination) is a housewife in a bloodless marriage to a kind but boring man, Fred (Cyril Raymond).  She meets Alec, a handsome, married doctor (Trevor Howard, sans the moustache he wore to such great effect in The Third Man), and they slowly fall in love with each other.  Both of them want the perfect romance, but they know that their love for each other is socially unacceptable.  In a great moment, the would-be lovers wait for Alec’s train, savoring their last moments together.  Laura’s chatty friend notices her, and strikes up a conversation that robs them of a final goodbye.  This scene, a famous one, hasn’t aged in nearly seven decades, because it is so perfectly understated.  Life doesn’t slow down to let two lovers share a passionate moment, nor the pain they feel upon realizing it is too intense for words or tears.

David Lean was one of cinema’s greatest directors, renowned for his ability to add an intimate touch to stories as epic as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.  Even in 1945, after only three years of directing experience, he did an outstanding job of matching gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and beautiful classical music with tiny, seemingly insignificant details – a shy squeeze on the shoulder, a quivering upper lip – that tell us everything by saying nothing.  But for all Lean’s skill, Brief Encounter is equally the vision of Noël Coward, the great British playwright who had already collaborated with Lean to adapt three of his other plays for the screen.  Some biographers have speculated that Coward, a closeted homosexual, imagined Laura and Alec’s affair as a metaphor for his own forbidden love.  If they’re correct, it would certainly help to explain why Brief Encounter feels so much more sincere than the thousands of other more or less identical stories the cinema has given us.

The film’s ending is sad, but not bitter.  Laura goes home to her husband, having seriously contemplated suicide.  As Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 swells, he sees that she is deeply troubled, and tenderly asks if there is anything he can do for her.  Unlike the husbands in most movie romances, Fred isn’t a villain or an idiot.  He’s not the love of her life, but he’s still a good man.  David Lean and Noël Coward knew that, even when it’s tragic, life is never completely bad.  The people we end up with are usually likable, patient, and kind – they’re just not perfect.  And for most of us, that’s the sting of being an adult.