Tom Brown shows up at Harvard, confident and a bit arrogant. He becomes a rival of Bob McAndrew, not only in football and rowing crew, but also for the affections of Mary Abbott, a ... See full summary »
At a café on a railway station, housewife Laura Jesson meets doctor Alec Harvey. Although they are both already married, they gradually fall in love with each other. They continue to meet every Thursday on the small café, although they know that their love is impossible. Written by
Steam ... cut-glass accents ... Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto ... the refreshment room at Milford Junction ... "the shame of the whole thing - the guiltiness, the fear ..." - it all adds up to David Lean's famous film treatment of the Noel Coward tale of love blossoming and withering at a suburban railway station. Laura Jesson is a complacent middle-class housewife who gets a piece of grit in her eye one day and is helped by Doctor Alec Harvey, and the romance begins.
Coward's screenplay is characteristic of his oeuvre. There is the neat precision of the circular plot, beginning and ending with the brainless intrusion of Dolly Messiter, and the matching sub-plot of the Albert-Mrs. Bagot courtship. There are tongue-in-cheek self-references (on the cinema screen, "Flames Of Passion" coming shortly) and the trademark Cowardian grounding in exaggerated Englishness ("One has one's roots, after all"). Most typical of all is that overwrought cascade of middle-class vocabulary (" ...so utterly humiliated and defeated, and so dreadfully, dreadfully ashamed"). Coward patronises working-class people abominably. Albert and Mrs. Bagot amble effortlessly through their romance because, bless them, they are simple folk. Alec and Laura suffer torments, having so much more sensitivity, and, you see, they have reputations to lose ("the furtiveness and the lying outweigh the happiness").
Having made the transition from editor to director in 1942, Lean was at the helm for the fourth time for "Brief Encounter", all four films being Coward projects - and a highly creditable job he made of this one. The scene in which Alec explains coal-dust inhalation and Laura falls in love is a model of sensitive direction. Reflections of Laura's face in the train window and the make-up mirror suggest in visual terms the existence of her 'other self', the id to her ego. Thundering steam trains and Rachmaninov stand for the irrepressible sexual urge. Stephen Lynn's flat, with its bachelor urbanity, contrasts cleverly with Laura's safe, staid home and safe, staid husband Fred ("I don't understand!") Alec's silent hand on Laura's shoulder is wonderfully poignant, the suppressed emotion eclipsed by stupid Dolly Messiter, her face filling the screen and 'wiping out' the great moment.
Sex has to be dealt with obliquely, but it is very much the driving-force of the film. "If we control ourselves, and behave like sensible human beings ..." offers Laura hopefully but hollowly. Neither man nor woman is capable of restraint, at least until after the climax in Stephen's flat. The boathouse and the little bridge hint furtively at sexual union. Other reviewers have declared the liaison to be 'unrequited' or 'unconsummated', but I am not so sure. In the grammar of 1940's cinema, the return to the love-nest of tousle-haired, hatless Laura is the equivalent, I would suggest, of our modern bedroom scene. Isn't that why Alec suddenly decides to take the job offer?
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