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 a wide-eyed Celia Johnson. We both loved classic films from this era but this particular example seemed to be an odd one for me to swoon over. She then asked the question that is so 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 called Laura who has a chance meeting at a train station with a doctor called Alec (played by a young and dashing-if-I-do-say-so-myself Trevor Howard). They arrange to see each other the following week, instinctively knowing what that means, but neither daring to admit it to themselves. However, as soon as they do acknowledge their true feelings to themselves and each other they know that the relationship (or the fantasy of a 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; as an actress she manages to be both understated and bursting with feeling. I’ve always been a fan of films where ostensibly, not a lot happens but, of course, everything happens – Celia Johnson was the embodiment of this style. Before Meryl Streep there was Celia Johnson. However, the combination of Celia accent (which was role-appropriate) and a plot that is mistaken for stuffy, middle-class repression, has made the film subject to mostly gentle mocking.
Victoria Wood’s parody hasn’t helped Brief Encounter’s legacy, in this rendition, Laura forgets how to eat a minced pie (because, war) and gets some of it stuck in her eye before meeting the doctor (who is no Trevor Howard…). I was furious about the existence of this sketch but I as I’ve grown older I can see that a lot of love went into its making.
On the film’s 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.”
The ending described by Patterson was 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’ 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 who would have been more likely to be granted custody, especially under the circumstances. If he left the children in Laura’s custody without offering funds, 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 become public (i.e. local) knowledge. Alec, her new love, wouldn’t be legally obliged to provide financial support for Laura 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).
After a few glasses of wine, I made a strong case for Laura’s predicament and urged my sister to watch Brief Encounter again, and she re-evaluated it (she is a better person than I am!). After watching ‘Carol’ with her teenage daughter she immediately alerted me to the similarity with the Brief Encounter ending – 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 hasn’t aged quite so well as some of the others in the film. In fact, Laura and her husband also have domestic help which puts a different spin on Laura’s weekly escapades; you can’t help but imagine floors being scrubbed or silverware polished whilst her and Alex laugh at the elderly trio who appear to follow them around to provide musical entertainment. 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.
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 while 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.” The choice of the wording here is interesting – Laura uses ‘violence’ to describe the passion that has turned her world upside down.
Although they do not consummate their affair, if you pay attention, Laura and Alec do come very close. Alec has a key to his friend Stephen’s flat where he sometimes stays 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 with Laura. Unfortunately for Alec, Laura cannot bring herself to go back to the flat and so, frustrated, he decides to leave Laura at the station and go back there, effectively providing her with an ultimatum, which Laura eventually acts upon. Although she is jittery and unsure of herself, the audience now knows that part of her wants to stay with Alec to consummate their affair.
In one of several cruel twists of fate, Stephen 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 is based on his play, ‘Still Life’. Both texts can be read as a metaphor for gay love affairs in the same period. Andy Medhurst explained that “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.
Unable to go home directly Laura makes a phone call to her husband, lying as to why she will be home late. Her lies provide the hallmarks of an affair without the physical betrayal. Having nowhere to go, Laura walks 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 is also compounded by a suspicious police officer, the implication being that Laura is conducting herself suspiciously, and for the time, as a prostitute might – why else is she alone at night, in the cold and smoking a cigarette.? The shame mounts and mounts. You cannot help but think that in this film, as in life, love is 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 both Still Life and Brief Encounter, a popular reading is a notion that 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 who is more privileged than she is.
The other relationship of note is between the 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 a customer 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!).
In one scene Myrtle’s mask slips when she is struggling to handle several rowdy youths wanting alcohol outside of licensing hours. In that moment, when Albert defends her, the couple feel right together – a sign that she mayrisk 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 film, Beryl mentioned her landlady, the one with various pets who is unlikely to welcome male visitors. During working hours, Beryl is often victim to Myrtle’s sharp tongue. Beryl’s life isn’t necessarily easy or free of risk especially if she should marry poorly.
Laura narrates the film and as such, you invest in her. Laura is someone who wants to live correctly but cannot easily combat the weight of her feelings for Alec.
There is a moment, at the beginning of their relationship where Laura imagines her and Alec in a variety of different romantic settings. In these glamorous fantasies, they are both younger and freer. The reality hits her hard when she arrives at the station and begins the walk home.
There is a tragic moment when Laura almost faints after running outside to see Alec’s train leave for good and the implication is that she might have easily stepped in front of another train out of pure despair. Laura was never really going to kill herself and she was never going to sleep with Alec either but however briefly, she wanted to do both.
Dolly Messiter is almost the executioner, leading Laura back home to humdrum Fred, domesticity and a lifetime of wondering ‘what if’.
I’ve always been struck by how relatable Laura is as she semi-listens to Dolly gossip to her on their way home while thinking: “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