Brief Encounter

Laura and Alec (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) meet every Thursday in town – he after work, and she to do the weekly grocery shopping. At first their regular meetings are nothing more than a newfound friendship, but it is not long before they fall for one another. The problem is, Alec will soon be leaving to work in Africa. Oh, and they’re both married, with families at home.

It’s a simple story, and therein lies the beauty. There’s no surprise ending, no unforeseen third act plot contrivance – in fact, the ending of the couple’s relationship is the first thing we see, but it isn’t until the end that we realise quite how devastating it is, as the events leading up to their separation are told chronologically through flashback, from their meeting when Alec assists Laura when she gets soot in her eye, through shared meals and cinema-goings, culminating in their final moments together, probably forever, in this day before social media and the ease of communicating with someone half the world away. 

Our focus is on Laura and Alec, and in a way there is nothing in this film but them. Their families are largely only hinted at, other than Laura’s dull husband Fred, but even with only mild insinuation and a well-implemented voiceover from Laura we are offered as much background information as we need to realise their situation and motivations. Neither were looking for someone else, and both believed they were content with the lives they were leading. Everything would have been perfectly fine if they’d just never met one another, but fate is a cruel mistress, and the couple’s momentary enjoyment cannot possibly last, and the sadness comes from their clear understanding of this fact.

There are other marginal characters – the tempestuous relationship between the cafe owner and train conductor (who walks across the train tracks! It’s like a different world!) – but they are merely background, and serve to frame this story, rather than add to it. In fact, without their inclusion I got the feeling that Laura and Alec’s story would have struggled to breach feature-length, coming in at only 86 minutes. This length felt perfect for the story though. There’s nothing I could add, and nothing I’d take away, and if anything were to be added, it would be in the form of excess background – perhaps a love interest for Beryl, the tea room assistant, but there’s no need for it, and it’d just be padding.

I’m fairly sure this is the most British film ever made, and it’s popularity is probably the main reason behind the English stereotype of the stiff upper lip and clipped manner of speech that has become synonymous with my fellow Englishmen. The amount of scenes that involve the drinking of tea (something of which I’m fairly proud I’ve never done) are almost farcical, and everyone speaks as though they were born not with just a silver spoon in their mouth, but half the cutlery drawer rammed down their oesophagus. It’s this typically British sense of repressed feelings and not letting your guard down that really makes this film, as we see our two leads, particularly Laura, struggling to maintain their steely facades whilst underneath their hearts are being torn apart my these circumstances beyond their control. You can’t let these things be public knowledge, it’s just not how we do things around here.

There are many moments of intense emotion and poignancy, but if I had to pick one, it would be the traumatised look Laura gives herself in the mirror after the first time she lies to her husband, followed by the internalised “It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.” She knows that there is nothing more wrong than what she is currently doing, but that she has no choice to do it anyway, and is just going to have to live with herself. By today’s standards the romance is almost laughably timid – the most that happens between the two leads is the occasional kiss – but the reactions and implications from these events are just as bad to our leads as if they’d been knocking boots five days a week for several months, if not more so.

This is one of the first films I’ve fully appreciated that doesn’t have a lot going for it in terms of action, humour or a happy ending that makes me feel all warm inside. Instead, this is heartfelt, emotional film-making, that shows just how much can be done with very little.

Choose film 9/10

10 thoughts on “Brief Encounter

  1. Thanks for the perspective from a Brit on how the English as presented in this film. Did you know that we Americans actually have THREE stereotypes of the English? (Yes, a whole three!) One is the stiff upper lip, bowler wearing, umbrella carrying, suit wearing man. Another is the poor cockney street person (you can probably chalk that one up to My Fair Lady.) The third is the football hooligan (chalk that one up to the news). I'm sure these are all very accurate stereotypes even though as an American I do not own a house full of guns, have never been involved in a shootout, have never been involved in a high speed chase in a sports car, don't own a cowboy hat OR boots, and have never run down a beach in slow motion. 🙂

  2. Well that's just ludicrous. Next you'll be telling me you don't even ride a horse everywhere or walk slowly away from nearby explosions. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to catch a red double decker bus and go play a game of cricket, followed by afternoon tea, a bout of morris dancing, then home for some fish and chips and spotted dick with custard. Oh, I say, my monocle just fell into my mornign cup of tea.

  3. Pingback: Top 10… New-To-Me Films of 2012 | Life Vs Film

  4. Nice review. You are right that the subplots are just padding and though they are marginal I did like them. They give us a bit of a breather and add to the feeling of normality. whatever happens to Alec and Laura life goes on.

    • Thanks. In memory this is shaping up to be one of my favourite new discoveries from the list, I think I should give it another watch soon, to see if it deserves a bump to 10/10.

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