A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

It had never occurred to me until I started reading essays about Brief Encounter that the movie is a period film: It's set in 1938, which explains why there is no visual evidence of or reference to World War II, which was still going on when it was made. This also helps explain some of the film's jitteriness or reticence about sex. Why, given the facility with which Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) lies about her relationship with Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), don't they just go ahead and have sex? The film is a portrait of pre-war middle-class morality, something the war helped break down, especially with the arrival of American troops, proverbially "oversexed and over here," in Britain. When it gained great popularity after the war ended, it was possible to debate whether Brief Encounter was a validation or an indictment of this morality. Is it really healthy for Laura to spend the rest of her life with her pleasantly stuffy husband (Cyril Raymond), dreaming of what might have been? Is it necessary for Alec to uproot his family and emigrate to South Africa just because of sexual frustration? The resolution to their dilemma seems easier to us: We wish Laura and Alec could unbend, the way the working class characters, Albert (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle (Joyce Carey) seem to do. (For all her pretense at refinement, it's easy to see that Myrtle has a healthy off-duty sex life.) But then we get glimpses of the social milieu in which Laura and Alec move: He has to contend with the catty nudge-nudge-wink-wink of Stephen Lynn (Valentine Dyall), the friend whose apartment almost becomes a venue for the consummation of their passion; she is surrounded by friends whose only pleasure in life seems to be to talk. There is a real brilliance in the way which Lean, greatly aided by Robert Krasker's noir-expressionist black-and-white cinematography, suggests the entrapment of the lovers in a world they are afraid to break out of. Johnson is magnificent, of course, and it was a stroke of genius to cast Howard opposite her. For all his kindness and attentiveness, there is something faintly menacing about him, a hint of danger and possibility that can only attract but also subtly frighten a woman whose life consists of helping her husband with the crossword and spending Thursdays in town returning her library book and shopping for an ugly desk tchotchke for his birthday. Everything in this movie is so well judged and efficiently presented that it only makes me regret that it was Lean's valedictory to intimate filmmaking before launching on his epic phase.