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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