Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945)


It all begins quietly at a train station. A couple (Trevor Howard, Ryan’s Daughter, and Celia Johnson, In Which We Serve) is sharing a cup of tea while waiting for the train. They say goodbye to each other, and that’s that. Something is not right about the farewell. The woman then begins to reminisce back to the events that led to the peculiar goodbye.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Brief Encounter is quite possible the best tearjerker of its time. And it is what one would call a “happy accident.” Nobody, not even director David Lean, expected the film to achieve legendary status, but it’s often listed among the greatest British films of all time. The film holds few surprises, but it’s beautifully crafted and highly watchable.

After working with Noel Coward in three films (In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, and Blithe Spirit), director Lean wanted to move away from his mentor. Lean was keen on making a film about Mary of Scotland. Coward told Lean that he knew nothing about the period and should stick to contemporary dramas (Lean, of course, later proved Coward wrong). The scriber offered Lean one of his lesser known playlets called Still Life. Lean didn’t like it, but after a few revisions, the director become enthused with the material. Perhaps Lean, who was known for having a troubled love life, felt some kind of kinship to illicit lovers.

Producers Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame helped Lean write the screenplay. The first great thing they did was to avoid turning the protagonists into unhappily married spouses. These are nice, ordinary people who find themselves in a difficult situation. Brief Encounter is devoid of any personal or moral judgment.

The acting is fantastic. Lean took a chance on Howard, who was an inexperienced film actor. On the other hand, Johnson was Lean’s first and only choice for the role of the housewife. She gives an unforgettably poignant and nuanced performance. Johnson narrates beautifully too. Her melodious voice helps create the proper melancholic tone. The fine cast also includes Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady), Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, and Marjorie Mars.

The film, despite its brevity and simply storyline, is a visual treat. From a technical stand point, it is still one of Lean’s best movies. He proves to be a stylist par excellence. He is ably assisted by the talented Robert Krasker, who is probably best known for his Oscar-winning work in Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

The 2nd piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff is used to great effect. Composer Muir Mathieson wanted to write original compositions, but Coward himself insisted on Rachmaninoff. Later Mathieson admitted that Coward was right.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

All in all, Brief Encounter is a superb film. It’s a fine example of Lean’s technical brilliance. B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.


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