Despite Lean’s important contribution to the film, in 1945 the film was sold as a Noel Coward film, and Andy Medhurst has read the film as an oblique expression of Coward’s homosexuality. The film’s forbidden relationship is heterosexual, but its depiction of ‘the pain and grief caused by having one’s desires destroyed by the pressures of social convention’ (1991: 204) could be understood as a coded reference to the tribulations of (then still illegal) homosexual relationships. Several decades on, Richard Kwietniowski’s short film Flames of Passion (1990) paid homage to Brief Encounter’s queer subtext by offering a gay reimagining of the original film. It even takes its title from the torrid melodrama that Alec and Laura go to see at the cinema, but which they leave halfway through because they find it too silly and implausible.
Brief Encounter’s ‘meta-cinematic’ elements (characters within the film commenting on films and the focus on aspects of 1940s cinema-going like the differently priced seats, the organist who plays beforehand, the trailers and Disney cartoon prior to the main film) are important reminders of the central role that fantasy plays in our lives; every small town has its cinema where people can spend a pleasant few hours inhabiting a cinematic dream world. However, Laura seems particularly prone to the lure of fantasy. She borrows romantic novels from the library and, as her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) remarks, she is a ‘poetry addict’ able to fill in the missing word from his crossword puzzle, taken from a line from Keats (‘Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance’ – a phrase that could apply to Laura’s own romance, punctuated by clouds of steam and smoke from passing trains). Meanwhile for down-to-earth Fred, ‘romance’ is just ‘something in seven letters’ that fits in with ‘delirium’ and ‘Baluchistan’. Laura is the one who turns on the radio broadcast of Rachmaninov when she returns home from her final terrible meeting with Alec, and who uses the pounding dramatic Russian music as a soundtrack for her remembrance of her love affair, communicating the depth of her feelings where words fail.
Indeed, the emotive power of these elements of the film belie its reputation as a realist, restrained, repressed text, and, as Richard Dyer suggests, to see Brief Encounter ‘as only cups of tea, banal conversation and guilt is not really to see or hear it at all’ (1993: 66). Rather, it is precisely that interaction in the film between suburban mundanity – such as going to Boots to buy a toothbrush, eating a Banbury cake at a café – and overwhelming unexpected emotion – falling in love, wanting to die if one cannot be with one’s lover – that makes Brief Encounter so resonant. At one point Laura says, ‘I’m an ordinary woman – I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people’; but the film never lets us forget that beneath the surface of bland normality, unsuspected flames of passion flicker away; that in the imagination of a respectable middle-class housewife, the ‘pollarded willows by the canal just before the level crossing’ can be magically transformed into moonlit palm trees under which she embraces her lover. The film grants us privileged access into these suppressed dreams and brings them vividly to life while also recognising the impossibility of sustaining them in reality. ‘Whatever your dream was – it wasn’t a very happy one, was it?’ says a newly insightful Fred to Laura in the film’s final moments, and on the whole he is right, for her romantic idyll causes her more pain than pleasure. And yet Laura still wants ‘to remember every minute – always – always – to the end of my days’.
One final point, although it may not be immediately apparent to today’s viewer, the cinema-goer of 1945 would have recognised instantly that Brief Encounter was not a contemporary drama but set a few years earlier, pre-war. It carefully depicts a late 1930s milieu with pointed details like Laura and Fred being able to leave their curtains open with lights blazing (no blackout), trains running on time and no coupons required to buy items like chocolate. But there is more to Brief Encounter’s temporal shift than simple nostalgia for the luxuries of the recent past. As Antonia Lant has argued, a ‘contemporary audience member could view the film with a sense of historical superiority that appealed to his or her sense of place, knowing that the constructed epoch on the screen had a definite and catastrophic endpoint’ (1991: 170). Neither Alec nor Laura seem to realise that their affair is taking place in the larger historical context of the final days before the beginning of the Second World War, and there is an irony implicit in their renunciation of each other in favour of stability and continuity (‘One has one’s roots after all, hasn’t one?’, Dolly states, a sentiment with which Laura agrees, albeit rather half-heartedly) when the world is about to change immeasurably, and roots are about to be ripped up, no matter what they choose to do.
1. Gavin Lambert in conversation with Stephen Frears and Alexander Mackendrick, during Frears’s documentary Typically British: A Personal History of British Cinema, Channel Four/BFI, 1994.
2. It should be noted that the film’s use of working-class characters as little more than comic counterpoint to the more dignified and ‘important’ middle-class love affair has also attracted much criticism.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: UK. Production Company: Cineguild. Director: David Lean. Screenwriters: Noel Coward, David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan. Cinematographer: Robert Krasker. Editor: Jack Harris. Music: Sergei Rachmaninov. Cast: Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr Alec Harvey), Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot), Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson).]
Kevin Brownlow, David Lean, London, Faber, 1997.
Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England, London, Faber, 1971.
Richard Dyer, Brief Encounter, London, BFI, 1993.
Antonia Lant, Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.
Andy Medhurst, ‘That Special Thrill: Brief Encounter, Homosexuality and Authorship’, Screen, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 1991.
Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People, London, Penguin, 1999.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.