Our weekly feature in which a writer answers the question: if you could force your friends at gunpoint to watch one movie or TV show, what would it be?
David Lean is best known for directing such big-screen epics as “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” but he first came to the attention of American audiences with the small-scale 1945 romantic drama “Brief Encounter,” which charts the doomed love affair between two restless Brits (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) who are both married with children yet feel stifled by their dry middle-class existences. The film is an adaptation of Noel Coward's one-act play “Still Life,” which some contemporary critics suggest was a coded representation of the “forbidden love” Coward experienced as a closeted gay man. The play and Lean's film version could certainly could be construed that way, but even taken straight (no pun intended), “Brief Encounter” is a film of rare feeling and power.
One notable, oft-cited aspect of “Brief Encounter” is its unglamorous depiction of the central couple, Laura and Alec. Johnson here is in the anti-Ingrid Bergman, pretty but unassuming, and far from the type of bombshell audiences at the time (and now) were used to seeing on screen.
“I love 'Brief Encounter,'” Robert Altman was once quoted as saying. “I was nineteen or twenty when I saw it for the first time. What I got out of it was that older women who wear sensible shoes are also attractive. Very attractive.”
Celia Johnson is incredibly affecting in this. In a time that was even less forgiving for actresses over the age of 30 than it is now (Johnson was 37 years old when the film was released), she carved out a character that felt lived-in, effortlessly lovable and invitingly sexy. There is no artifice in her Oscar-nominated performance, and her chemistry with Howard tracks beautifully with Lean's restrained direction; there are no big set pieces or “location porn” moments in the film, just the unfolding of a sweet, deeply-felt love story against perfectly run-of-the-mill cafes and movie theaters and small city apartments.
“Brief Encounter” is also remarkably funny, rooting it in the great “comedy of manners” tradition as Laura and Alec's passionate love affair butts up against the culture of emotional restraint that pervaded suburban British society. Near the beginning of the film there's a laugh-out-loud scene where Laura (in voiceover) wishes death on a chatty, vapid acquaintance (“I wish I could trust you. I wish you were a wise, kind friend, instead of a gossiping acquaintance I've known casually for years and never particularly cared for”), and as delivered in her perfect diction it is devastatingly funny.
What's also remarkable in “Brief Encounter” is how Lean manages to wring out maximum suspense from the unfolding human drama. There's a scene about halfway through the film when Laura becomes panic-stricken when Alec doesn't show up at the pre-arranged place and time, and anyone who's ever been stood up (particularly in the pre-iPhone age) can relate to her all-consuming paranoia at the thought of never seeing him again.
I won't give too much away for those who haven't seen it, but suffice it to say “Brief Encounter” begins with a scene in a cafe and ends (save for a brief denouement) with the very same scene, albeit now in the context of the love affair at the film's heart. Every mannerism and shared look is given new, heartwrenching meaning, and it's a final stroke of brilliance in one of cinema's great romances — a mature, deeply humane, brutally pragmatic look at ephemeral romance and enduring love.
“Brief Encounter” is a part of the esteemed Criterion Collection. You can buy the DVD here.