It’s interesting how David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter opens. Rather than starting at the beginning of Alec and Laura’s brief affair, it begins at the end. We don’t see their conversation, however. The camera first shows us two people, Godby, a train ticket inspector, and Bagot, the owner of a cafe. They are chit-chatting away, meaninglessly. It is implied that the characters are in a friends-with-benefits-type relationship, and have some sort of an optimistic view on love. The camera briefly moves to Dr. Alec Haley and Laura Jesson, two people who are in absolute silence at the moment. Not knowing who they are, we don’t think much of them. Just looking at them, we see them as two people on a bad date. Just awkward silence, and vague descriptions of each other to the talkative Dolly who joins them at the last possible second. However, when Dr. Haley must leave to catch his train, he places his hand gently on Laura’s shoulder. From there, we gather that they had a deeper connection than originally thought.
The rest of the film is told as a narrated confession to Laura’s husband, Fred. Laura doesn’t directly tell Fred what happened, but it’s everything she wants to say to him. Laura first meets Dr. Harvey when she accidentally gets a piece of grit in her eye after standing next to a train coming down the tracks. He gets it out for her, and they continue on with their lives. Nothing even remotely romantic happened between them. The next week, they say hello to each other as they pass by on the street. And then, by chance, they meet up in a restaurant the following Thursday. They talk about their lives and professions, and even see a movie together. They head back to the train station for coffee, and Alec is talking about his passion for medicine and helping people in need. It is there when Laura and Alec realize that they are in love with each other. Laura says that Alec suddenly looks much younger when he talks. “Almost like a little boy”, according to her. He is startled, and then asks her to elaborate. She says she can’t, because she is a married woman. She asks him to continue instead. The camera moves closer to her, and we see her eyes and face, lit in a bright light while the rest of her body is in a gentle shadow. She cannot stop looking at him, and is genuinely interested in what he’s saying. When she falls in love with him, he’s talking about pneumoconiosis, a disease of the lung that makes it difficult to breathe due to inhalation of dust. She gets her breath taken away as he talks about a disease that literally takes breath away.
Once the train comes back, the delivery of their lines is that of much more excited people. Haley drops his serious persona, and behaves like Laura said he had done when he was talking about the medicine. Like a little boy, eager and younger. They look at each other like two teenagers that have fallen in love for the first time, not being able to get enough of each other. And the sad irony is because they’re married and have children in 1940s Britain, they will never be able to run away with each other.
The blocking in the film also exemplifies Laura and Alec’s feelings for each other. In nearly every shot in each scene they share together, they are both in the same frame, showing their connection that is only building. In each scene where they realize they’ve begun to fall for each other, they walk slower together. Time is of the essence, and because they know they haven’t much longer with The most noticeable times they aren’t in the same frame are when they’re on the train, leaving. I’ve always loved the shot of Laura leaving on the train on their penultimate meeting. They look into each other’s eyes as it moves forward. The camera moves slowly to the left as it follows her eyes. It focuses on her face and how she just stares at him, waiting for his assurance that he’ll be there next Thursday. Once he gives it, she quickly sticks her head back into the train, as if trying to forget him for a little while so she won’t feel the pain.
Cinematography-wise, this film is masterful in every respect. Because the film is told primarily through flashbacks, this gives director of photography Robert Krasker the freedom to make the look of the film during the past slightly surreal. The shadows and lighting in the film are nothing short of magical, and this is proven during Laura and Alec’s first kiss. It’s hesitant at first, particularly on Laura’s part. Moments before, they had talked about falling in love with each other, and Alec was the one who was more bold about expressing his feelings. Laura, on the other hand, feels that the affair should stop, because she does not want to be unfaithful to her husband. When they arrive back at the train platform to head to their respective homes, there’s shadows amongst them, showing the forbidden nature of their relationship. He leans towards her, about to kiss her. She says “Not here, someone will see.” Alec says with boldness, “I love you so.”, and kisses her on the lips. She accepts the kiss with hesitation at first, but then shows excitement. The shot of their kiss is placed far away from the characters, almost as if the audience is a voyeur, not supposed to be looking at this, and the shadowy environment makes the kiss even more secretive, especially as Laura wanted no one to know about their relationship. The next kiss that is shown is on a bridge, on a cloudy day with dead trees in the background. This reflects Laura’s mood at the time, as she is almost caught in her affair as two friends of hers walk by while Alec and her are having lunch. Alec and Laura have a conversation that details their current unhappiness, saying that the lying and secrecy outweighs the happiness they share together. They reassure themselves that they are still in love with each other, and with their eyes locked, they embrace and kiss again. The camera is placed much closer to them, like for a brief moment, they forgot all about anyone nearby and just wanted to show the world how much they were in love.
The actress who plays Laura, Celia Johnson, is stellar. The decision to present the film in flashback mixed with the present day is genius, as it only makes Johnson’s acting in the present day that much more heartbreaking. The mixture of romantic, intense love shown in the eyes and blocking of the characters in the past and the unmoved, uncomfortable movements of Laura in the present day only makes the heartbreak that much more intense. In the scenes that take place in the present, we see her unhappiness, and Johnson conveys every ounce of heartbreak in her body movements in the subtlest form. She is slouched on her chair, and in her eyes, we see her tiredness and depression. Three things stuck out to me while watching a certain scene. First was a brilliant piece of filmmaking that occured, which was a transition from the past to the present. The first kiss fading back into the present. Fred interjecting, saying to Laura “You were miles away” in a joking manner, noticing how deep she was in thought. The score of the film being its loudest as Alec and Laura kissed fades into the music on the radio in the present. Fred then asked Laura to turn it down, saying it’s too loud, interrupting that beautiful moment Laura had in her fantasies. The second saddening moment was Laura saying she was “perfectly happy”. She said it in response to Fred saying that they’d be going to bed soon, but the camera lingers on her as she sews. The viewer can infer every bit of emotional and even physical pain that Laura is going through. I can only imagine it, but I feel in her eyes, and in her monologue that she is experiencing the stomach pains, the dry mouth, the heaviness in her chest, and an excruciating urge to break down and cry.
The accolade that Brief Encounter presents itself with is “one of the most romantic films ever made”, according to sites like The Guardian, and critics like The AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo. I never found it that way at all when I first saw it. It’s certainly a romantic film, as the short-lived romance is intense between Dr. Haley and Laura, but Brief Encounter doubles as a horror film, which is apparent in the film’s last five minutes. The ending of the movie brings us back to the opening scene. During Alec and Laura’s last meeting, he reveals that he has taken a job in Johannesburg and he plans to bring along his family, mostly to run away from his own feelings. Alec and Laura have spent their last day together quietly, smoking cigarettes and revisiting places where they had shared special kisses and meaningful conversations. They end their day in the train station, where they first met. They are silent, and can barely think of anything meaningful to say. I always thought it meant that if Laura says goodbye or “I love you”, it truly means the end of their relationship. Alec is the one to ask if he can write a letter to her every once in a while, yet it is Laura who cannot stop thinking of the pain that the end of the affair will bring. They try to cherish each minute, but we are brought back to Dolly and her annoying voice, minor complaints about trivial matters, her constant chattering, and her ruining the final moments that they want to spend together. Her arrival is much more saddening now that we know the full context of the love that Alec and Laura shared together. The shadows surround Laura as she narrates, showing a further despair that the audience and even she didn’t think were possible. What’s agonizing about the couple’s last moments is that they don’t get a last goodbye. No big kiss, no final embrace, no saying the word goodbye, not even a handshake. Laura can’t even walk with him to the train platform because she doesn’t want Dolly to be suspicious. Alec just holds Laura’s shoulder, hoping that will be some sort of sign about how deeply he loves her. Much like Celine Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the lovers’ last encounter isn’t romantic, passionate, or intimate. It’s just one awkward touch cloaked in secrecy from the people that surround them. Alec doesn’t come back, despite Laura praying that he does. Once the next train arrives, the sound of the bells and whistles grows ever louder, and the camera tilts on Laura’s face. The mise-en-scene grows darker around her, and the lighting on her face only gets brighter. We see the pain and agony on her face as she then gets up from her seat and runs to the next train, hoping to jump in front of it, but deciding to stop before it passes her. That amount of sorrow and suicidal tendencies has never been as potent on film as it was in those last few seconds, and that is why Brief Encounter can also be seen as a horror film, expressing true feelings of terror and hopelessness like few films of the genre have.
Its ending is one that can be read multiple ways. Fred sees the sadness in Laura’s eyes and tries to comfort her however possible, despite not knowing what is exactly going on. Laura then bursts into tears for the first time in the film, finally allowing herself to cry and express her emotions to Fred. Is it a happy ending? Maybe. After this, Fred and Laura may try to make their relationship stronger if she confesses to her adultery. Is it a sad ending? It’s more than likely. Laura crying shows that she may never feel this deeply in love ever again, not with Fred, not with anybody. But what can be agreed on in the ending is that it is extremely cathartic. The last shot of Laura crying and hugging her husband is one that allows the audience to release their own emotions after witnessing passion as well as bleakness for an hour and a half.
Brief Encounter is a film that resonated deeply with moviegoers at the time, being popular at the box office, a hit with critics at the time, and scoring three Academy Award nominations (Screenplay, Director, and Actress). Even today, it’s considered to be one of the greatest films of David Lean’s career as well as in the romance genre. It’s still a film that feels fresh, despite being made in the 1940s. Its themes are universal, and much like movies about similar subjects like Before Sunrise or Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it reminds the audience never to let those feelings of passion go. Cherish those feelings, cherish the moments you had with someone you were in love with. Even if it was just for a little while. One last shot that stuck with me was when Alec finally told Laura about his upcoming job in South Africa. They sit on a train bench, feeling defeated and lost, knowing they can never be together, but in the background, two young lovers run in the distance. Perhaps this represents everything Alec and Laura want to be, two happy people without a care in the world, but they are too old and have too many commitments to their own lives. But that spark that they felt, even in the moments of pure despair, will never go away, and hopefully in time they can use that feeling of the love that they shared to make themselves and their families happy in the future.