Brief Encounter (1945)


A man and a woman (Trevor Howard, Ryan’s Daughter, and Celia Johnson, In Which We Serve) are 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:

“It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.”

Brief Encounter is what one would call a “happy accident.” No one, 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. While I admit that the film holds very few surprises, this is without question an engrossing, beautifully crafted romantic melodrama.

After working with dramatist Noel Coward on three films in a row — In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), and Blithe Spirit (1945) — director Lean wanted to move away from his friend and mentor. Lean was keen on making a film about Mary of Scotland (he never made the movie). Allegedly, Coward told Lean that he should stick to contemporary dramas (Lean, of course, didn’t heed Coward’s advice).

Coward asked Lean to consider adapting one of his lesser-known playlets, Still Life. At first glance, Lean didn’t like it, but after a few revisions to the play, the director became enthused with the material. Brief Encounter is in fact the best Lean-Coward movie. Perhaps Lean, who was known for having a troubled love life, felt some kind of kinship to a tragic story about illicit lovers — the film is devoid of any moral judgment.

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 people who find themselves in a difficult situation. As I said before, Brief Encounter doesn’t preach to the viewers.

The film, despite its brevity and simple storyline, is a visual treat. From a technical standpoint, it is still one of Lean’s best movies. He proves to be a stylist par excellence. Lean is ably assisted by the talented Robert Krasker, who is probably best known for his Oscar-winning work in Carol Reed’s 1949 thriller The Third Man.

The acting is fantastic. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are unforgettable as the ill-fated lovers. Johnson in particular gives a poignant and multilayered performance. Plus, Johnson narrates beautifully — her calm voice helps create a proper melancholic tone. The cast also includes Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady) as a ticket inspector.

The 2nd piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff is used to great effect. Composer Muir Mathieson (49th Parallel and In Search of the Castaways) wanted to write an original music score, but Coward asked Lean to use Rachmaninoff’s famous melody. At first, Lean and Mathieson resisted, but they later admitted that Coward was right — the huge success of the movie helped popularize Rachmaninoff and his music.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

All in all, Brief Encounter is a superb production. It’s quite possibly the best romantic drama of its time. The cast is extraordinarily good. It’s a fine example of director David Lean’s technical brilliance — Brief Encounter is definitely one of the director’s very best movies. Highly recommended! B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.

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