Brief Encounter is regarded as one of the world’s most poignant doomed-love-story films. It’s the story of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a suburban housewife who has a weekly routine of a little day trip to London every Thursday, where she does a little shopping and treats herself to a movie before heading home to her comfortable little house, just in time to serve dinner to her husband and two kids. It’s a quiet little life, with the little hiccups being dispatched easily, like when some soot gets in her eye at the train station while she’s waiting to go home one week; almost immediately, a kind doctor passing by on his way to his own train helps her to get it out. Coincidentally, she runs into him a week later at her lunch spot and invites him to join her, in thanks.
These very small moments are the beginnings of what becomes an emotional affair that shakes both Laura and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) to their foundations. Harvey is married as well, and only works in London once a week – but conveniently is done with his rounds at about the same time Laura finishes her shopping, so they start hanging out in the afternoons – taking in a movie, strolling through the botanic garden, trying out a rowboat in the park. Fun, simple, innocent stuff. Perfectly respectable. Until the day Harvey points out the obvious – their meetings have been dates, and he has fallen in love with Laura. And, he is pretty sure she reciprocates.
She does. Which terrifies Laura. She tries to resist it at first, urging Harvey to keep things platonic, but as they keep on with their “meetings” Laura is soon overwhelmed by what she feels. She starts fibbing to her husband about the things she does in town, lying to friends she meets on the street with Harvey, and generally coming closer and closer to adultery than is entirely comfortable for her. But the more uneasy she is about her behavior….the more sure she is that she loves Harvey. Ultimately, though, fate conspires against the pair on several occasions before they finally have to say their goodbyes.
So, on paper this movie is so my jam. This exact kind of brief-encounter love story has always been the kind that affects me most – short, more emotional than physical, but unquestionably significant for both parties. But there is one technique this film uses that pulled me out – Laura’s narration throughout, as she tells the entire story to us in flashback while she considers how – and if – she should confess the whole thing to her husband.
It was a frustrating detail because the film did not need it – Johnson and Howard’s performances are stellar, and Johnson in particular can convey depths of emotion with a simple look. Director David Lean also earning his cred with every shot. I didn’t need to hear Johnson talking about what Laura was feeling because I already could tell. Ultimately the narration was a distraction that kept me from getting swept up alongside Laura and Alec.
Alex and I each had our own guesses what it was doing there; Alex thought it was a bit of a convention Lean thought he had to adopt, since narration was a convention creeping into films at the time, particularly in film noir. Meanwhile, I think it may have been a bit of an ego play for the screenwriter – none other than Noel Coward, who adapted the work from one of his short plays. Perhaps Coward simply got a bit too much in love with his own words, and included a bit more of his own writing than was quite necessary.
I wanted to like this film; in the few scenes where the narration is given a rest, I did like it. But ultimately I was a little frustrated at not being able to dive all the way in.