I’ve been reading a lot about Brief Encounter recently. A new Criterion Collection version was released just a few weeks ago and, in case you’re not a movie nerd, the framing device of Carol is based on Brief Encounter (I knew this despite never having seen Brief Encounter, just to prove my movie nerd credentials). So last weekend I promised my wife “one of the most romantic movies ever made” – or so it had been described to me. I’m not sure I’d describe it that way. I appreciated Brief Encounter, but I didn’t love it. And I certainly didn’t consider it one of the most romantic movies ever made.
Technically, the film is interesting, especially given its time and pedigree. The restoration by the BFI National Archive and the David Lean Foundation is beautiful. The cinematography is great, although it doesn’t quite approach the grandeur of Lean’s later work. I’m not sure if it’s due to the year it was shot – 1945, rather than the 30s or early 40s – or the different filmmaking conventions – UK as compared to Hollywood – but it was nice to see Celia Johnson rarely in soft focus, save for two shots (although it’s technically the same shot used twice, and the focus isn’t even that soft). And if I were teaching a class in cinematic technique, Brief Encounter probably has THE textbook dutch angle.
As for the romance, some parts work very well. Trevor Howard is effortlessly charming as Alec, and there’s something in the specificity of Laura’s fantasies (not just dinner, but dinner . . . in Paris . . . in black tie) that makes them feel so true to life. The various coincidences and plot points that add up to their romance never feel forced, so that by the end it’s easy to see why these two are attracted to each other and how they end up where they do.
But that journey hasn’t aged well. Brief Encounter is supposed to be the story of two sensible people wrestling with a very impulsive decision with huge consequences for both. But, given both social mores and film censorship at the time, it’s the most squeaky clean portrayal of adultery I’ve seen. While the British Board of Film Censors was slightly more relaxed than the Hays Code – it vaguely stated that “indelicate sexual situations” should be avoided, while the Hays code mandated that “Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.” – its restrictions effectively neuter the drama inherent in the plot. To wit, Alec and Laura confess they love each other before anything physical happens, thus making it clear to the audience that mutual true love – rather than boredom, lust, depression, or any other more realistic driver of adultery – guides their actions. And the most dramatic moment, their interrupted tryst in a borrowed apartment, ends so abruptly that it feels like a non-event (albeit enough of a non-event to require the disapproval of the apartment’s owner, thus ensuring the moral standards of all are upheld). I understand we live in a different world today, but somehow contemporary films like Casablanca managed to make wholesomeness less sentimental.
Despite its shortcomings, I was still genuinely moved by Brief Encounter. It doesn’t have the punch of The Remains of the Day, where the personal consequences of unconsummated (and in this case unspoken) love are better explored, but few doomed romances do. So while I’m glad I saw Brief Encounter from a cinematic history point of view, it’s certainly not going to be my choice for next Valentine’s Day.