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

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

I reviewed Brief Encounter in November 2015 as part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. At that time, the film was available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection only as part of a larger boxset called David Lean Directs Noël Coward. Today, though, Criterion has released the film in a standalone edition, and, for my money, if they’re doing this with films that deserve their own spot on the shelf, then Brief Encounter is definitely deserving. I got a copy of the new standalone release and wanted to repost my old review along with a look at the supplemental features.

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 to the naked eye. 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 engages 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.

This “violent thing” happens to this protagonist while she quietly has tea in the corner of a small 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 placed to populate the set. But, as I mentioned above, that ho-hum scene in the background, 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, but she never utters this out loud. Rather, the woman is thinking it all as she sits in a chair across from her husband. Thinking her confession: another brilliant way to show how much tumult can be going on in the quiet, proper, even kind living room as the daylight settles into darkness.

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 each week, sensing each other long before they speak to each other, they eventually 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, then, is not some welcome 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. Magnificent.

Next, the film famously never lets the lovers consummate their relationship. The climax is an anti-climax. The punishment Laura and Alec 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, emotional sphere, separate from the physical world. 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’s open space.

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. In the meantime, her relationship with her husband promises its own ups and downs.

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.

The Criterion Collection edition: For people who already have the Lean/Coward boxset, there is no need to pick up this standalone release of Brief Encounter. It has the same transfer and the same supplements. For people who do not have that boxset, this is an easy recommendation. It is one of my favorite film, after all, and this edition is gorgeous (though I’d still recommend just getting the boxset).

  • Recorded in 1995, the original audio commentary track by Bruce Eder is carried over to this release. Eder covers almost every aspect of the film I can think of, from the film techniques to the narrative structure to the production history to the lives of the actors and its principle creators.
  • Barry Day: This is a 16:21-minute interview with Barry Day, a Coward scholar who provided interviews on all of the films in the original boxset. Here he talks about the what appears to be his favorite, the film where Lean and Coward really came together to create a piece of cinema art.
  • A Profile of “Brief Encounter”: I was excited about this supplement, because, hey, this is one of my favorite films of all time. But I found this 24:32-minute profile a bit uninspired as it looks at the film’s production.
  • David Lean: A Self Portrait: On the other hand, I loved this 58:24-minute documentary from 1971, which features Lean looking back on his career. Unfortunately for someone looking for a lot more on Brief Encounter, by 1971 Lean’s career was defined by his epic films, and a lot of this is Lean looking back at Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. But since I do like Lean’s epics, if not as much as his earlier work, I still got a lot out of this supplement.
  • The disc also includes the theatrical trailer.
  • There is one change with this edition: where the boxset came with a nice booklet with many essays on all of the films as well as the collaboration between Lean and Coward, this standalone edition comes with an insert featuring just one essay, “‘Riskiest Thing I Ever Did’: Notes on Brief Encounter,” by Kevin Brownlow.
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