Laura (Celia Johnson), a housewife, and Alec (Trevor Howard), a doctor, both happily married to other people, happen to fall in love with each other, quite by chance and apparently without calculation, after he removes a piece of grit from her eye. Friendship develops into romance, and the couple meet in town once a week before they finally call off their ‘affair’, which remains unconsummated. Their sense of duty towards their respective spouses and families, as well as their overwhelming need to behave in accordance with the accepted morality of the time, prevents them from taking their relationship any further. Instead, sexual passion is displaced by awkward conversation and furtive, loving glances at each other in the Milford Junction station tearoom or the Kardomah café.
Jeremy Paxman begins his book, The English: A Portrait of a People, with a detailed account of the Brief Encounter: a good indicator of just how far this film has become an icon not only of British cinema but also of British national identity, particularly in terms of the behaviour of its two lead characters. Raymond Durgnat proclaimed the motto of the film to be ‘Make tea not love’ (1971: 181). Durgnat further noted how the film that was critically lauded upon its 1945 release (even winning the Critics’ Prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival) met with quite a different reception 20 years later, when its ethos of restraint no longer seemed quite so appealing to the exponents of sixties free love, and the most innocuous little details of the film provoked impatience and irritation in its viewers. He recalls that at one screening he attended ‘Even the name of the town enraged a well-spoken young lady who finally cried out, “Where the hell is Milford Junction anyway?”’ (1971: 180).
However, the suggestion that the film did not meet with antipathy until the 1960s is slightly misleading, since even in the 1940s the film had a mixed reception. When it was first test-screened in a cinema in Kent that had a working-class clientele, it was heckled and laughed at throughout because of the (much parodied) middle-class speech of its protagonists, not to mention its unimpeachably ‘correct’ morality. Brief Encounter may be a national icon but from the moment of its initial release onwards there have been any number of iconoclasts who have called into question its ability to speak for them and their national identity. Perhaps the critic Gavin Lambert was correct when he called the film a ‘definitive document of middle-class repression’, the last word on a particular kind of Britishness, specific to a time and a place and most crucially a class. 1 Even within the film, we see the operation of a slightly different moral code via the parallel relationship between Myrtle (Joyce Carey), the station tearoom manageress and Albert (Stanley Holloway), the stationmaster, who belong to a different social class from Alec and Laura, and are less inhibited about acting on their feelings for each other.2
Brief Encounter was the fourth and final collaboration between the celebrated playwright Noel Coward and director David Lean, who would go on to make two of the most highly regarded adaptations of Dickens novels, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) before moving into epic mode with later films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Having risen to the status of the top British film editor by the end of the 1930s, Lean had been asked to co-direct the war film In Which We Serve (1942) with Noel Coward, providing technical expertise to complement Coward’s ease with actors. The partnership proved highly successful and continued with Lean directing the family saga This Happy Breed (1944) and the supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit (1945), both adaptations of Coward’s stage successes. It is a sign of Lean’s growing confidence as a director that he encouraged Coward to rethink the chronological structure of his half-hour play Still Life, the source for Brief Encounter, when converting it into a screenplay. Lean told Coward that the original dramatic structure lacked intrigue and surprise. He suggested that the film version could play with audience expectation by beginning with an enigmatic scene showing the couple’s final parting:
“and then you go back and explain that this is the last time they see each other. They were never going to see each other again. And you play the first scene in the picture – it made no sense to you at all and you didn’t hear half the dialogue – again, and that’s the end of the film.” (Brownlow 1997: 194)
This strategy is highly effective, particularly as it comes at the film’s most emotionally extreme moment; Laura’s sudden suicidal impulse. In the first version, we remain in the tearoom with Myrtle and Laura’s friend Dolly (Everley Gregg) vaguely wondering where Laura has got to, before she reenters the room looking pale and shaky. In the second version, we go with Laura as she rushes out onto the platform determined to throw herself under the express train thundering past, and this time we understand the significance of the moment and know exactly why she has reached this abject state. She hesitates at the last moment and resists suicide, although as she admits in her voice-over narration (an imaginary confession to her husband, but also the key to the viewer’s intimacy and empathy with the character) that this is not because of a sense of duty towards her family but because she ‘wasn’t brave enough’ to go through with it.