Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

Brief Encounter
d. David Lean (1945)
Spine: #76
Blu-ray Release Date: March 27, 2012

Criterion Banner FINALThis is a special week that I’ve been looking forward to for months. My good friend Aaron West, the co-host of the Criterion Close Up podcast and of the blog Criterion Blues, has joined with Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings to throw a massive party: this week is the Criterion Blogathon!

Hundreds of writers are coming together to share their thoughts on the films in, on their love for, on their addiction to, The Criterion Collection. This will be a great opportunity to share and celebrate our excitement and passions, and I look forward to meeting new friends through their work.

You can see the full schedule over at Speakeasy here. Today’s group focuses on English-language films from the United States and United Kingdom up to 1947. I’m participating with this post on David Lean’s Brief Encounter.


I’ve devoted so much attention to the work of Alice Munro because I always tremble deeply when I encounter her depictions of the emotional turbulence going on under the surface of lives that appear rather unremarkable. People are in pain or in rapture as they clean their homes in silence on a Tuesday morning. In her masterpiece Lives of Girls and Women, Munro writes, “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.” Another work of art that engaged with the emotional depths of us all is one of my favorite films, David Lean’s Brief Encounter, an adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Still Life. In the film, the female protagonist says this:

I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to an ordinary woman.

In Brief Encounter one of the most violent things happens to this protagonist while she quietly has tea in the corner of a railway station. No one pays any attention. Of course, we’re talking about emotional, maybe even spiritual, violence and not physical violence. We’re sensing wounds we cannot see. Why, we may not even register that what we’re sensing is a wound; we’ll just see a person who slouches a bit more, sighs a bit more frequently. We may excuse it as the simple effects of time.

Brief Encounter

When Brief Encounter opens, we are ushered into the railway station. We join a few characters busy serving customers, chatting lightly. In the background a couple sits having tea. They look like any nameless couple you might see when you go out. In the context of a film, they look like some extras put in to populate the set. But, as I mentioned above, that ho-hum scene in the background of that couple doing something as innocuous as having tea is the emotional crux of the entire film. Soon the camera focuses on them, and we learn their story through a series of scenes accompanied by the woman’s voiceover. Even the voiceover underlines the agony someone can experience quietly: it’s presented as a confession that is never even uttered out loud. Rather, the woman is sitting in a chair across from her husband, thinking her confession — another great way to show how much tumult can be going on in the quiet, proper, even kind living room.

The confession, as we might guess, concerns a guilty idyll, the brief encounter of the title. The woman’s name is Laura (Celia Johnson). She is in a happy marriage when she one day chances to meet the kind Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) at the Milford railway platform. She goes to Milford every Thursday to shop and catch a picture show. He comes to town every week to help out at a local hospital. Finding themselves in the same general schedule, waiting at the Milford train station, they strike up a cordial friendship. He himself is a married man, and it appears that neither of them knew that they were capable of falling in love with someone else. They forgot how deeply they could be shaken. So their guard is down, and when love does spring on them it’s as frightening as it is exhilarating.

Though the story of a doomed affair is far from unique, Brief Encounter itself is not conventional.

First, the film isn’t criticizing social mores that keep two people apart though their lives without each other are terrible. On the contrary, Laura is happily married to a good man, even if their marriage has become a bit routine and maybe even boring as the days drift by. The affair with Alec is not some unwelcome intervention into a bad marriage. Laura’s husband is kind. In fact, he gets the film’s last line, which is as genuinely romantic and touching as anything said before by any character. With that line, he suggests his own silent pain, though up to now we’ve mostly seen him sitting quietly, as if unaware, on the other side of the living room.

Next, the film famously never lets the lovers consummate their relationship. The climax is an anti-climax. The punishment Laura and Alex experience is to walk away unreleased. Again, the agony is emotional, spiritual. Physicality is a corollary that remains static.

Which takes me to my final thought for now. Laura at one point says this:

Nothing lasts, really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.

This is true, but the film also shows how the statement is false. Paradoxically, by cutting the relationship short, the relationship, the brief encounter, lives on, albeit in a different, invisible sphere. Laura and Alec are similar to the couple in John Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” One of the drawings on the old urn features a man and woman, almost to embrace but forever separated by the urn.

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Laura and Alec experienced an idyll that was never fulfilled — most idylls are cut short, sadly — which may be exactly what makes the idyll so powerful and meaningful and lasting, for better or for worse. Though it moves into the past, it stays in our minds, tantalizing us even on the dullest days. Back to Keats:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Laura will have to live with the silent melodies of the unlived life with Alec for a long time; as her lived life with her husband has its ups and downs, its moments of departure and return, her relationship with Alec, never consummated, never worn, will remain sweet and terrible. We are vast wells of emotion and paradox. This relationship, encased in art, reminds us of that, even as we sit and watch the film quietly in our living room.

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By | 2015-11-18T18:31:26+00:00 November 16th, 2015|Categories: David Lean, Film Reviews|Tags: |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Tredynas Days November 16, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    A lovely post, Trevor. It’s one of my favourites, too, though it’s many years since I saw it. The BFI here in the UK has it on a schedule of romantic films being screened again now, but I won’t get to London to see it. Must look it up on dvd or elsewhere. I can’t altogether share your Romantic/Keatsian take on it, I’m sad to say; there’s too much pain and anguish in it for that, in my view. That awful scene at the end, when Laura has to endure the inane chatter of an intrusive friend that prevents her from saying a proper farewell to Alec, must be one of the most poignant in cinema. Social conventions stifle emotional impulses in a terribly British way. And of course it has been suggested that the whole thing is really about all kinds of unconventional, non-heterosexual love affairs. Whatever, it’s still a film that packs a visceral punch, with brilliantly understated acting (stiff British upper lips much in evidence) and RP accents you could cut with a blunt knife.

  2. Silver Screenings November 16, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this one, but your beautifully written post has brought it all back. I loved how poetically you described their angst…although personally I think Celia Johnson dodged a bullet. I like Trevor Howard in this film – think he’s fabulous – I just don’t believe his character is telling the truth.

    However, all that aside, I really enjoyed your review. Thanks for joining the blogathon!

  3. Kristina November 16, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Wonderful post on a touching and poignant movie, especially your comments on their unlived, unfulfilled relationship. thanks so much for taking part in the blogathon.

  4. aaronwest November 16, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Terrific review, Trevor. I love how you worked in the literary angle, and your prose keeps up. Like Ruth, it has been awhile since I’ve seen this, but I adored it initially and it has stuck in my mind. A lot of that has come back thanks to this illuminating post.

  5. Keith Enright November 16, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    My initial thoughts on this movie were that I let the subject matter cloud my enjoyment. I hated what they were doing and was upset by that. Your softer take helped me see the true, sweet pain at work here. Thank you!

  6. stevedallas November 16, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    Love Brief Encounter! Wanted to share this priceless quote about the film from Kathryn Altman, in case you haven’t seen it: “One day, years and years ago, just after the war, [Altman] had nothing to do and he went to a theater in the middle of the afternoon to see a movie. Not a Hollywood movie: a British movie. He said the main character was not glamorous, not a babe. And at first he wondered why he was even watching it. But twenty minutes later he was in tears, and had fallen in love with her.” Me too!

    Have you seen The Passionate Friends? It has a similar vibe and is well worth a watch, though not quite as good as Brief Encounter. Enjoyed your commentary. Thanks.

  7. Max Cairnduff November 17, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Lovely review Trevor. I’ve actually still not seen this, but I shall remedy that.

  8. Lee Monks November 17, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    Superb – and like Max I must get round to this.

  9. Trevor Berrett November 17, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Thanks to everyone — it is a great film!

    Lee and Max, I expect to hear your reactions soon!

    Thanks again to Silver Screenings, Kristina, and Aaron for giving me the opportunity to share this on a larger scale as part of the blogathon.

    Thanks to Keith for helping me think my words have the ability to change someone for the better ;-) .

    Steve, I have not seen The Passionate Friend, so thanks for the recommendation and for the insight on Altman. I had much the same experience with Celia Johnson — she is so great in this!

    And thanks for your thoughts, Simon. I don’t necessarily think this was Romantic in the literary sense of the word, as your right that that gives a lot of air to breath in a film that shows how suffocating this was. I do think the characters are dealing with Romantic notions of an idyll, though, and I love how the Romantics took inner feelings, squelched in this film, and attempted to live them out . . . to sometimes disastrous ends. I think there’s a lot to look at here — thanks for prodding me to think about it a bit deeper!

  10. Marilyn Ferdinand November 17, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    This is a lovely post on a truly lovely and memorable film. I think Celia Johnson is one of the best actors Britain ever produced, but she is perhaps not as appreciated these day as she once was. I love your quote from “Grecian Urn,” as it really encapsulates the future of the memory of this not-quite affair for both parties, caught in amber, untarnished, unaging.

  11. Patricia Nolan-Hall (Caftan Woman) November 17, 2015 at 7:35 pm

    A delicate and unique film that you have given its full due.

  12. Kelly November 18, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    Wow, some really elegant commentary here. Well done.

  13. Trevor Berrett November 18, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    Thanks for the kind thoughts, Marilyn, Patrician, and Kelly. It’s nice to hear from you.

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