I grew up watching old films and I was always aware of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, but it wasn’t until I watched it as a teenager that it became one of my favourite films.
“You’re having a laugh aren’t you?” my sister asked, recalling the clipped accents of the lead characters, especially Laura Jesson, played faultlessly by wide-eyed Celia Johnson. We both loved old films but this one seemed to be an odd choice given our own upbringing. She also asked the question that is often asked, “why don’t they just get on with it and shag?!” More on that later.
If you haven’t seen Brief Encounter it’s the story of a suburban housewife Laura who has a chance meeting at a train station with a doctor called Alec Harvey (played by a young and dashing Trevor Howard). They arrange to see each other the following week without giving it much thought. However, as soon as they admit their true feelings to each other, the relationship is doomed to end. It is a tender love story and was well received upon its release in 1945.
Awfully middle class
Celia Johnson’s portrayal of Laura is remarkable and understated. I’ve always been a fan of films where ostensibly, not a lot happens but, of course, everything happens. However, the combination of Celia Johnson’s accent in particular, and what might be perceived as stuffy, middle-class repression, has made the film subject to mockery over the decades.
Victoria Wood’s parody hasn’t helped Brief Encounter feel relevant either (in this rendition Laura forgets how to eat a minced pie (because, war) and gets some of it stuck in her eye before meeting doctor who is no Trevor Howard…). For a while, I was furious about this sketch but I think it’s a parody made with good intentions.
On its 70th anniversary, journalist, John Patterson described how he went from laughing at the film to laughing (and crying) with it: “I thought I was terribly clever to treat it as a comedy, not realising that tragedy and comedy both depend on good timing, and that a moment like, say, the arrival of the gabby gossip Dolly Messiter, just in time to ruin the last few precious moments of the couple’s near-affair, is amusing and unendurably heart-breaking all at once.” An ending which is replicated in the 2015 film, ‘Carol’ by Todd Haynes and based on the 1952 novel, ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith.
In my twenties, I read an essay on the possible consequences for Laura had she and ‘Alec’ (the doctor, played by a young Trevor Howard) decided to abandon both their partners for each other. Laura’s ability to see her children might have been entirely dependant on her scorned husband’s goodwill as he would likely receive custody, and if he left the children with Laura, she would need to petition for maintenance for their care (Laura herself would not be entitled to financial support) and the details of her affair would be public (i.e. local) knowledge. She would likely depend on Alec for financial support but he wouldn’t be legally obliged to provide it, and should he decide to go back to his wife and children, Laura would potentially find herself in dire straights – possibly with no children, no home (if divorced) and after years of being a housewife, forced into employment (which might be hard to find if her circumstances were known).
With this new context in mind, I urged my sister to watch Brief Encounter again, and she did the thing humans rarely ever do, myself included, which is to re-evaluate and change their position. So much so, that after watching ‘Carol’ with her teenage daughter she immediately alerted me to the similar scene in Brief Encounter influence – the lovers’ discreet goodbye innocently interrupted by an alternative Dolly Messiter (although in the case of Carol, it is more of a hello, again).
There is no getting away from Laura’s posh accent which isn’t unusual for the time but hasn’t aged quite so well as some of the other middle-class accents in the film. In fact, the Jessons also have domestic help which puts a different spin on Laura’s weekly escapades as you can’t help but imagine floors being scrubbed or silverware polished whilst her an Alex laugh at the trio of elderly female musicians who appear to follow them around. Also, Laura’s children have silly accents too, especially the young daughter who has clearly been instructed to look straight ahead and say the bloody lines. Their screen time is, thankfully, limited.
Accents aside, I think Brief Encounter has aged very well and I think that because I think it achieves balance and because it continues to resonate with me.
Sex, sexuality and shame
Of course, in reality, the whole film is about sex. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 blasts through the record player as Laura thinks about Alec and Fred earnestly attempts to complete his crossword. “I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura thinks to herself, “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”
Although they do not consummate their affair, Laura and Alec come close. Alec has a key to his friend Stephen’s flat where he sometimes stays over when working at the local hospital. Knowing that his friend will be out for the evening, the possibility of sex hangs in the air throughout a day spent together. Laura cannot bring herself to go back to the flat but a frustrated Alec, decides to leave Laura at the station and go back there, effectively providing an ultimatum, which Laura eventually acts upon, although upon arrival it is clear that she hasn’t decided she will stay, but her going there is enough to suggest she could be persuaded.
Alec’s friend returns home unexpectedly, forcing Laura to leave via the tradesman stairs (stop it) to avoid detection. Laura wanders the streets in shame and despair. The interruption (one of several) marks the beginning of the end of their affair.
The screenplay for Brief Encounter is written by Noel Coward and based on his play, ‘Still Life’. Both texts can be read as a metaphor for gay love affairs in the same period. According to Andy Medhurst, “Employing the naively biographical paradigm of Gay Authorship, Brief Encounter shows Noel Coward displacing his own fears, anxieties and pessimism about the possibility of a fulfilled sexual relationship within an oppressively homophobic culture by transposing them into a heterosexual context.”
Although it isn’t explicit, I suspect that Stephen, Alec’s bachelor friend is supposed to be gay. He scolds Alec, not so much for having an affair, or even for using his flat, but for not being up-front with him, therefore, betraying his trust. Stephen asks Alec for his key back, but Laura’s shame takes a more pitiful form.
Laura’s humiliation prevents her from going home and so she makes a phone call to her husband, ironically lying as to why she will be home late; all the behaviour of an affair but without the physical betrayal. Laura chooses to walk the streets alone and in the rain until it stops and she takes a seat facing a war memorial – a foreboding monument to self-sacrifice. The path ahead is clear and compounded by a suspicious police officer, the implication being that Laura is conducting herself as a prostitute might – why else is she alone at night, in the cold and smoking a cigarette. The shame for Laura is heightened. You cannot help but think, it is as it always has been – much worse for a woman.
The other side of the train tracks
The relationship of middle-class Laura and Alec takes place alongside the relationships of minor, working-class characters in the same train station where they Laura and Alec mostly meet and part ways. In both Still Life and Brief Encounter, a popular reading is the notion hat the working class love is less complicated. At face value, it is a romantic notion, perhaps based on the idea that the poorer you are, the freer you can be as you have less to lose. I am not sure I buy into the idea, especially when Laura has more at stake than her male counterpart – why would matters of the heart be any fairer to those who are generally worse off than both characters?
The other relationship of note is between café owner, Myrtle Bagot (played by Joyce Carey, one of Noel Coward’s frequent collaborators) and ticket inspector Albert Godby (played by Stanley Holloway who appears in many an Ealing Comedy). These fine actors bring these secondary characters to life and although their screen time is limited and comedic in nature, they hint at so much more, as though they are part of another film being made elsewhere.
In an earlier scene, Myrtle explains to the tea assistant, Beryl, how she came to own the teashop. She left her husband who expected her to be ‘housekeeper and char during the day…and a loving wife in the evening.’ Myrtle had family and friends to support her out of her marriage, but her husband was ‘dead as a doornail within three years’.
Laura describes Myrtle as ‘the one with the refined voice’ and you get the impression that although the café owner has no regrets, she cares a lot for propriety. She scolds Albert for ‘taking liberties’ with her in front of Laura but he implies that on a different occasion she was more receptive. Of course, Albert and Myrtle’s scenes are filled with humour (Albert! Now look at me Banburys
all over the floor) but there is one scene where Myrtle is struggling to handle several youths wanting alcohol outside of licensing hours. In that moment the balance of the relationship between Myrtle and Albert feels right and might be a sign that she will risk her independence again for another man.
Towards the end of the film, Beryl, Myrtle’s assistant is seen with a young man. Although happy, we remember that at the beginning of the flat, Beryl mentioned her landlady with various pets. During working hours, she is often victim to Myrtle’s sharp tongue. Beryl isn’t necessarily free of risk and should she marry poorly, it’s unlikely she’d follow in Myrtle’s footsteps.
Laura narrates the film and as such, you invest in her as someone who wants to be good but cannot help being human.
There is a moment, at the beginning of their relationship where Laura imagines them in a variety of different romantic settings. In these glamorous fantasies, they are both younger and free. The reality hits her hard when she arrives at her station.
Of course, there is the moment when she almost faints after running outside to see his train leave and the implication is that she might step in front of another train. Laura was never going to kill herself and she was never going to sleep with Alec but she came close.
Dolly Messiter is almost the executioner, leading Laura back home to humdrum Fred, domesticity and a life of wondering ‘what if’.
I’ve always been struck with Laura being so human as Dolly gossips to her on their way home when Laura thinks: “I wish you’d stop talking. I wish you’d stop prying, trying to find things out. I wish she were dead. No, I don’t mean that. That was silly and unkind, but I wish you’d stop talking.”
Finally, I love Laura for this sage advice about misery born from ill-fated love:
This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts, really… neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute… always… always to the end of my days.
 Brief Encounter: is it still relevant at 70?
 Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson (eds) Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and British Cinema in the Second World War Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996, pages 99-100